Fiji: 38; Wales: 34. But still no level playing field [The Fiji Times, 9 October 2007]
Fiji has done it again. Against all odds, one of the Pacific Island “rugby minnows” has made it to the quarter-finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Displacing Wales- one of the “first tier” teams, and a recent Five Nations champion.
FIJI 38 WALES 34
Gutsy Tonga, came close to beating former World Champion, South Africa. Samoa faltered, but they remain a potent force.
The absolute miracle is that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are contending at all at the world cup level, when there is still no “level playing field”.
No Level Playing Field
The Pacific Island rugby is like any other “product”, competing with other rugby products, in a highly competitive market, where the big producers have all the advantages.
The first tier rugby unions of Australia and NZ (and others like Wales) draw on generous subsidies at all levels (from their well-off governments), massive advertising revenues from rich multinational corporations and media companies, and large gate revenues from well-off spectators. They can afford the best facilities, the best coaches, the best salary structures (see the cartoon by Jo Uluinaceva used in my book To Level the Playing Fields).
They sharpen their competitiveness by regularly playing each other internationally, and in regional competitions like the Super 14. And they attract the best players not only from their own countries, but also from the Pacific.
In sharp contrast, the Pacific Island rugby unions struggle to get assistance from their financially strapped governments, some sponsorship from small local companies and poor gate revenues from poor populations.
Their grounds are usually in terrible condition. The other training facilities are non-existent.
The coaches and players are poorly paid and so there is little incentive to remain in the islands. Their national and regional competitions, because of a lack of finance, can never be at the level of the first tier nations.
So how could Fiji make it to the quarter finals of the 2007 World Cup?
The words used by overawed commentators keep recurring: burning desire, heart and soul, guts, and commitment from the players. And of course, from the managers and coaches.
And we might add, with great sadness, despite the lack of meaningful support from the neighbouring rugby playing nations of Australia and NZ, supposed to be our “big brothers”.
Sad exclusion from Super 14
The Rugby World Cup would not be a “world” cup without all the rugby playing countries like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, participating.
Of course, the first tier nations can (and some do) feed their fragile egos by running up cricket scores against the smaller countries.
But for the World Cup to be a genuine spectacle and event, the participating smaller countries must be competitive. And they cannot compete if their own domestic competitions are not at the highest levels.
Tragically, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are excluded from the one regional competition- Super 14- that could really help their rugby in a financially sustainable manner.
Three years ago, Australia, NZ and South Africa had an opportunity to expand the Super 12 into Super 14. Instead of including a Pacific islander team, they chose yet another two from Australia and South Africa.
They missed a glorious opportunity not just to add to the quality and diversity of the Super 14 competition and genuinely help Pacific Island economies to grow through their own efforts and not aid.
Potential development benefits
The Pacific Islands have very few areas of comparative advantage on which they can build their future economic growth and development. Tourism is one, and rugby is another. Both can feed off Super 14.
A Pacific Islander team playing “home” Super 14 matches in rotation in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa would not only generate the largest gate takings ever but massively boost local tourism.
Television cameras from Australia, NZ and South Africa would follow the stars around the resorts, the sandy beaches, the reefs and seas.
The marketing benefits for tourism resorts and airline companies would be immense, and they would no doubt provide subsidies to the visiting teams.
With the Pacific Island rugby unions sharing in the benefits of Super 14, there would be a comparable boost to the local rugby competitions, producing even more rugby stars for the international rugby economy.
Today, Pacific Island economies are being supported by hundreds of millions of dollars of remittances being sent home not just by qualified university and technical college graduates, but also nurses, caregivers and security guards (who are losing their lives in places like Iraq). Rugby players are also sending money home, and there could be far more.
And the national rugby teams of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would receive just that vital boost they need to make it consistently to the top tier of rugby.
What Pacific integration?
For a decade, there has been talk of economic integration between Australia and NZ on the one hand and the Pacific Islands on the other.
Already, the Pacific Islanders are spending the largest part of their incomes on goods and services bought from Australia and New Zealand, creating employment there.
Our own often more nutritious local foods are being displaced by often inferior Australian and NZ goods, whose retailers (like Punjas) are ironically the largest sponsors of rugby in Fiji.
The Forum Island countries are facing intense pressure from the Australian and NZ governments to further reduce their import duties to Australian and NZ goods, through impending trade agreements such as PACER, which they hope to ultimately convert into a Free Trade Area.
But Pacific countries continue to view PACER with great suspicion, because they know that three quarters of Pacific manufacturers will collapse (and thousands will lose their jobs), because they cannot compete with Australian and NZ goods under free trade.
One would have thought that an enlightened Australian government would take the initiative to employ the thousands of Pacific Islanders who wish to work for Australian and NZ employers who cannot get labour. (NZ has made a small start in allowing 5000 Pacific Islanders to pick fruit in NZ, while Australia is “watching the development”). But no.
One would think that enlightened Australian and NZ governments would facilitate “free trade” in the one area- rugby- where there is the possibility of genuine integration between Australia, NZ and the Pacific countries. Where the Pacific Islanders have already proven their competitiveness by beating the Warratahs and Queensland Reds. But no.
The Rugby World Cup, PACER and the Pacific Plan
Whether Fiji wins or loses against South Africa on Monday morning is immaterial.
Simply by making the quarter-finals, Fiji has made a point that is bigger than just this one game.
It has implications for the wider economic, political and social relations between the Pacific countries and Australia and NZ.
The Pacific Forum Island countries will keep meeting with Australia and NZ every year, to discuss greater integration through PACER and the Pacific Plan.
Given the threat of job losses, it would surely help if large numbers of unskilled Pacific Islanders were already earning incomes from temporary jobs in Australia and NZ.
Pacific Island countries must therefore fight for easier access for unskilled labour into the labour markets of Australia and NZ, as a basic minimum for any implementation of PACER.
On the social front, there are numerous tensions which have developed between political leaders, over the last two decades, partly because of the very human “love/hate” relationships that develop between aid “donors” and aid “recipients” ( “Beggars can’t be choosers” but Pacific leader also have pride).
Such political tensions can surely be lessened if there are better and more equal relationships between the Pacific countries and Australia and NZ, such as those that can develop through rugby.
Pacific Island countries must therefore also fight for entry of a Pacific Islander team into the Super 14 competition, as part of PACER and the Pacific Plan.
Only then may Fiji, Samoa and Tonga be playing on a more level playing field in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.