There is no denying the players that hail from the Pacific Islands are world-renowned. They epitomise everything that is loved about rugby – power, passion, family, and culture.
The 2023 Rugby World Cup in France has seen the rebirth of the islands’ prowess on the global stage, reignited after the long fight for eligibility-rule changes and the introduction of Fijian and Pacific Island teams into the Super Rugby competition.
The influx of ex-tier-one superstar converts like George Moala, Salesi Piatau, Malakai Fekitoa, and Lima Sopoaga, amongst others, have seen Samoa and Tonga gain an edge of experience previously missing.
Fiji, fan favourites at both this World Cup and of the rugby sevens circuit, have long had their core players at European clubs.
The treatment of Pacific Island rugby teams has often been one of inequality and injustice within the rugby world
There has historically been a clear disparity within the team – between those that played in Europe and those that played dotted around the second-tier National Provincial Championship in New Zealand, or Super Rugby. Yet, the emergence of the fierce and threatening Fijian Drua franchise has allowed Fijian players to gain frequent game time at the highest level of Southern Hemisphere club rugby.
Regardless of some lop-sided scorelines, this new togetherness has come to fruition on the international stage with consistently competitive and powerful performances. The difference has been huge, noted by all those within the rugby community, and has raised questions about the exciting potential of island nations – which may cause concern for the comfortable tier-one representatives sitting on the board of World Rugby.
The performances of the Pasifika teams this year have been remarkable and history-making. Their games have been full of passion and skill – often contrasting with the bludgeoning and drudgery of some test matches – drawing in fans from across the world. Despite no less than 10 national teams in this current World Cup fielding Pasifika eligible players, the Oceania island teams of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa were still able to make a mark – incredible when put into context.
Nonetheless, the treatment of Pacific Island rugby teams has often been one of inequality and injustice within the rugby world. As such, it would be apt to highlight two of the greatest present inequalities they face:
The perceived bias of referees when adjudicating Pacific Island teams playing tier-one nations
Multiple referee calls and TMO decisions have led to outrage in this World Cup, with fans turning to social media attempting to hold World Rugby accountable, but more needs to be done.
I experienced first-hand the frustration of Fijian rugby fans when watching the Wales v Fiji game in the Bordeaux fan zone with my Fijian matavuvale (family).
The continuous infringements of Welsh players with no yellow card or penalty try to match – despite seven cynical penalties given away within their five-metre line – was disappointing.
However, just one infringement in the defensive 22 led to Fiji’s Lekima Tagitagivalu being shown an immediate yellow card. The inconsistency of the decision making was astounding and many in the media spoke of bias, be it deliberate or unconscious, against a lesser-tier nation.
In his post-game press brief after Samoa’s slender loss to England, head coach Seilala Mapusua referred to the unequal penalty count of 15 – 4 in England’s favour, despite his team comprehensively winning all the possession, territory, ball-in-play, scrum, and lineout head-to-heads. He posed the question of bias by saying:
“These players [Samoa] are playing in the same competitions [as their opponents], and a lot of them are teammates… but when you throw all of them [Samoa players playing in Europe and elsewhere] in the same-coloured jersey for some reason we need more exposure to the referees. I believe there is [bias] and there has been in the past”
Mapusua’s comments came in the wake of a decision by the TMO to disallow a try after the conversion was taken – something not allowed within the match protocols.
This led to many pundits and social media sports commentators asking whether the basic laws of the game are being manipulated to fit an agenda. When watching it unfold it wasn’t a stretch to think World Rugby aren’t too bothered about the progress and success of Pasifika teams on the global stage.
Game time outside of the Rugby World Cup
Tier-two nations, in particular the Pacific teams who have consistently featured at World Cups for 20 years, have begged World Rugby for more opportunities to play tier-one sides in-between tournaments.
They are now joined by Chile, Georgia, and Portugal, whose amateur players and passion now too demand further recognition and support.
In the past 20 years, New Zealand have capped enough outstanding Pasifika talent to fill 10 teams. Yet, they have only ever played one test match in the Pacific Islands – when they played Samoa on 8 July 2015 at Apia in preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks won the match 25 -16.
England have only played twice in the Pacific Islands in their entire history. The lack of effort in visiting these less funded nations is detrimental as tier-one exposure is vital for the tier-two nations to retain their players and develop the professionalism of their game.
The England RFU, despite its multitude of organisational failings from grassroots to premiership, boasted a revenue of £189.1m from 2021-2022.
Although not helped by issues with leadership, the financial model followed by Pacific teams has pushed all three major island nations to bankruptcy at various points in recent history. To further prove the existing inequality, England players earned a minimum of £22,000 for their game against Samoa at Twickenham last autumn, while the Samoan players earned just £630 for that same match, with many having to fund their own travel, hotel, kit, and medical supply expenses.
World Rugby refuse to create a new rugby calendar more inclusive of tier-two nations while constantly forcing more and more tier-one competitions upon a stagnant fan base.
The continued financial inequality also remains the greatest barrier to overcome if Pacific teams are to have a fair chance to retain their players who are desired by so many clubs and countries across the world. Although they are still able to shine despite the battles they face, will the islands ever be given a genuine opportunity to reach their potential?
The magic that the Pasifika teams have shown they can create in this World Cup, the pride and drive they have to represent their jersey, their families, and their homeland, is something that is beloved across the world.
Despite the seeming lack of interest World Rugby holds in their development, the island teams have the love of rugby fans worldwide who want to see them far more regularly on an international stage.
Us rugby fans want to see them create their own legacy as teams that play authentic, passionate rugby. I experienced first-hand the love the islands have for their rugby when living in the highlands of Nadroga, the home of rugby in Fiji, with kids looking up to the Flying Fijians and playing barefoot with anything that looked remotely like a rugby ball. Rugby runs in the blood of the Islanders more so than anyone else – to play is almost like their birth right.
So, who is World Rugby to stop them?