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“The silver linings for Fiji rugby” (ed. in FT 19/10/2019)


The silver linings for Fiji rugby (ed. in FT 19/10/2019)

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is sadly over for Fiji (and Samoa and Tonga), but where to from now?

The plentiful armchair experts are conducting their post-mortems, with coaches and team bearing the brunt of the “blame game”, as always whenever teams lose.

Largely lost from the current discussion is the acknowledgement that the Fiji team’s overall performance was already miraculous given their sheer lack of resources (finance and players) and the poor remuneration of our players, compared to that thrown by the larger rugby playing countries like Australia or England.

It needs to be again recognized that the core of the resources problem for Fiji (and Samoa and Tonga), in  addition to the “eligibility rules”, is that our rich rugby playing neighbors Australia and NZ selfishly deny us access to the potentially lucrative Super Rugby competition that could generate the domestic resources which would help us to retain our abundant rugby talent who are forced to play abroad for the sake of their families.

But in the midst of the current gloom, doom and dark clouds, I suggest that there are at least two silver linings emerging.

The first is that international rugby experts are not only full of praise for the performance of small Pacific countries (like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) despite the odds, and the rise of yet more phenomenal super stars like Semi Radradra, but more and more of them are calling for reform of the “eligibility rules” which deprive our national teams of available good players (read the recent articles in the Fiji Times).

The second is that the Prime Minister of Australia has not only repeatedly announced his fond appreciation of his Pacific vuvale and Fijian “mate” Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, but despite facing enormous pressures on his domestic political front, made his presence felt in Fiji, at a rugby league game between an Australian Fifteen and Fiji Fifteen.

The real challenge now for the Pacific nations (Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) is to organize themselves politically and play a “diplomatic geostrategic hardball” with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NZ Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern to leverage entry for their Pacific vuvale  into the lucrative Super Rugby competition, which has the potential to generate the resources required for their national rugby union teams.

Given its funding and mandate especially for fostering regional integration, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga especially need to pressure regional CROP organization Forum Secretariat to advance this Super Rugby agenda as one of its priorities, sure to find favor with the enlightened politicians in Australia and NZ.

The thorny eligibility rules

When it comes to international trade, there are powerful rule-setting organizations like World Trade Organization which try to ensure that there is a level playing field for rich and poor nations in trade.

Economic theory argues (and Australia and NZ Prime Ministers might respect this argument more) that the overall economy benefits if factors of production (capital and labor) and goods are freely able to move where their returns are higher: any barriers to this free movement of factors must reduce total incomes, globally and nationally.

Unfortunately, international rugby has “eligibility rules” which favor the rich rugby playing countries to the detriment of the poorer countries, by stopping players from going where their economic returns are higher.

In international rugby (and many other sports), players can represent a country through multiple criteria: through parents’ nationality, grandparents’ nationality or residence, and players’ preferences for national identity.

Naturally and increasingly because of emigration and mixed parentage, some players have many options or choices in front of them.

But with income earning opportunities limited in the poorer countries, their talented rugby players have every incentive to join foreign teams in the rich countries (like Australia, NZ, France and England), from where they are often selected for their national teams.

But once they have played for the rich countries, “eligibility” rules can prevent them from playing for the poorer country for which they may be otherwise eligible and available.

Of course, these eligibility rules were originally intended to protect small rugby playing nations like Scotland or Wales whose talented stars would be otherwise lost richer countries like England or France who offered better financial returns.

But according to former Manu Samoa rep and Pacific rugby players’ advocate Dan Leo, the same rules are now biting small poor Pacific countries like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, who are denied good players for the Rugby World Cup, simply because they have once played for Australia, or NZ or France but are no longer needed by them.   Leo argues that removing these eligibility rules would not cost the powerful nations financially and would be of great help to the smaller nations.

Quite remarkably (and ironically given my comments on Super Rugby below) the same criticism is now being made by NZ Rugby Chairman (Brent Impey) who accused the Northern Hemisphere rugby countries of “colonialism” against Pacific nations (Rugby Pass, 16 Oct. 2019).

In this same Rugby Pass article, outgoing NZR chief executive (Steve Tew) is also quoted as criticizing the Northern Hemisphere countries for opposing World Rugby’s proposed Nations Championship which would have allowed a promotion relegation format which could have provided second tier countries (like the Pacific countries and Japan) a pathway to tier one teams.

These arguments all make sense so why do these eligibility rules still persist?

Narrow national interest versus “The Game”

At the heart of these eligibility rules is of course the chauvinistic national desire to “win” at all costs, even if the game itself suffers because some teams are deliberately weakened by the rules.

But honest sports people, even in the powerful rich countries, will acknowledge the “warm positive” emotions when some small underdog country, like Fiji or Samoa, loses but have put up a brave fight against their own national team.

No one likes a boxing match where one fighter is totally pulverized and mismatched. So also in rugby.

Genuine sports aficionados understand that in a fair game with well balanced opponents, the game itself is the ultimate winner, even if one side must win and one lose (or sometimes end in a draw).

So can the rich countries change the eligibility rules, even if it makes their opponents stronger?

Note however that the arguments made by Impey and Tew above for a fairer deal for Pacific countries, also apply equally to their being admitted to the Super Rugby competition, as was also pointed out by the Rugby Pass editors in their article of 16 October 2019, although they diplomatically did not use the word “hypocrisy” to describe Impey and Tew.

Pacific Team for Super Rugby

For more than fifteen years now, Pacific countries have been desperately trying to gain entry to the Super Rugby competition, which we should point out to Tew, is a far more logical competition for them than one involving teams in Europe.

This economist has often given all the cogent economic arguments why entry to Super Rugby for a combined Pacific Team (from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) would be a win-win for not just Pacific Island and Australian/NZ rugby, but also their respective tourism industries, especially with home games rotated in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Readers may find some of these Fiji Times articles in my book (The Challenges of Growing the Fiji Economy) being sold in Hot Bread Kitchen outlets, as well as on my website (NarseyOnFiji) with their titles and dates quite indicative:

“The Rugby World Cup: not a level playing field” (FT 22/10/1999)

“Super 12: a super rip-off” (FT 3/12/2000)

“Colonialism again: rugby style” (FT 25/7/2004)

“The rugby hypocrisy continues” (FT 17/3/2006)

“Troublesome challenges for Pacific Island countries) (Pacific Scoop, 4/9/2011)

“World Rugby trade war, again” (FT 9/3/2019).

Those economic arguments apply even more today with large numbers of Pacific people living and working in Australia and NZ.

Indeed, NZ Rugby Chairman will find his discovery of “rugby colonialism” explained even more clearly for Super Rugby where the rich country teams have been ever willing to take the talented raw materials from the Pacific (the rugby stars) but put up trade barriers to the finished products from the poorer countries such as simply banning them from entry to the competition even though the consumers of rugby have already witnessed the superiority of the Pacific Team over some of their own Super Rugby teams.

Political hype or opportunity?

Cynics might suggest that the Australian Prime Minister’s recent foray into the Pacific for a rugby league game, the Pacific StepUp initiative and the frequent references to Australia being part of the Pacific vuvale is sheer political hype, while the real underlying political objective is to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific.

Be that as it may, but for Pacific countries AND Australia and NZ it presents an opportunity to genuinely strengthen their people to people relations through the strengthening of rugby links, which Pacific people are far more passionate about than hundreds of millions of aid or loan money that either Australia or China can throw at them.

With the clear evidence of the enormous political goodwill generated by Scott Morrison’s recent visit to Fiji for a mere rugby league game, can you imagine how much more both Prime Ministers Morrison and Ardern could generate with their Pacific neighbors, if they regularly sat down in Australian or NZ or Pacific stadiums filled to the brim with home and visiting fans, alongside Bainimarama and other Pacific Prime Ministers, enjoying the far more popular rugby union match?

I suspect that no other Super Power competing with Australia and NZ in the Pacific, will ever have this political luxury, for so little cost.

While some might allege that governments should not interfere with sports, just remember that all sports in Australia and NZ, including rugby, receive massive indirect subsidies through government budgets. There has also been precedence in the past where both the NZ and Australian governments intervened over the Springboks tour because of popular opposition to apartheid.

I suspect that worrying  superpower developments in the Pacific over the last ten years might equally be powerful enough reason for both Australia and NZ to “gently encourage” Australian and NZ rugby unions to give the Pacific nations a fair go, both with respect to entry to the Super Rugby competition and to changes in the eligibility rules that strengthen Pacific teams for international games such as at Rugby World Cup.

I would expect that NZ Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern, given the great leadership qualities she has already displayed to the world after the Christchurch massacre, would be extremely sympathetic to given Pacific rugby a fair go in Super Rugby.

As Tew has already recognized, the Pacific teams would not be asking for special treatment, but just given the opportunity to be part of a promotion-relegation system which gives them at least a go at beating the weakest teams in the Super Rugby franchise.

Note also that with increasing numbers of affluent Pacific Islanders living in Australia, NZ, US and Canada, there may be all kinds of ways of making the Pacific countries entry into Super Rugby more profitable for the organization, in addition to the judicious use of Australian and NZ aid.

No need for Pacific nations and talented sports people to hedge their bets by exploring more lucrative sports that China and United States might wish to foster in the Pacific for their geostrategic interests, rather than sticking to the British colonial legacy of rugby union.

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