Plan to stop Pacific Islands rugby player drain gathers pace
Could a Super League franchise in Fiji prevent players like Nathan Hughes from switching their allegiance to other nations?
In the week that yet another Polynesian rugby player made his debut for a northern hemisphere nation details of a plan designed to halt the "player drain from the Pacific Islands" have emerged.
Plans for a Super Rugby franchise in Fiji have so far raised £20m and the team "could be operational by 2018", reports Gavin Mairs of the Daily Telegraph. The paper says the project has the backing of "four global companies and two leading kit manufacturers".
The Pacific franchise would be based near Nadi on Fiji's main island and would take its place alongside teams from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa who have been joined in recent years by sides from Argentina and Japan.
"The move comes after World Rugby launched a working group to review the residency laws for international rugby, which allow players who have yet to make an international appearance to play for a country after having lived there for three years," says the paper. "That has led to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa haemorrhaging talent since the game turned professional in 1995."
The most recent player to make his debut is Nathan Hughes, the Fiji-born back row who came off the bench against South Africa. He could make his first start against his homeland on Saturday.
Hughes turned down the opportunity to play for both Fiji and Samoa, who he is also qualified for, after being told that he was on England's radar. Now, three years after joining Wasps, he has joined Eddie Jones's England side.
Hughes is "upfront about the primary reason he opted not to pursue a Test career in his native land", says The Guardian. "The potential rewards now available to England players, not least a match fee of around £22,000 per game, are increasing and will always eclipse the amounts available to their Fijian counterparts."
For the game against Fiji, England are likely to name a squad featuring Billy and Mako Vunipola (who moved from Tonga as children), the former Samoa rugby league international Ben Te'o and the Fijian-born winger Semesa Rokoduguni, notes the paper.
Ironically, the plan to set up a Super League franchise in Fiji is being led by an Englishman, Ben Ryan, who guided the Fiji sevens side to Olympic gold in Rio.
He tells the Telegraph that a XV made up of Pacific Islanders playing for other nations would be one of the best in the world and believes the best way to stop the talent leaving is to give them the opportunity to play high quality rugby at home.
According to Ryan, there are more than 150 Fijians playing in France. But his aim to create the best club side of the world in their homeland would change things. "They would all be on the first flight back," he says.