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Chance of a lifetime

Gregor Paul

New Zealand has made it a priority to include a Pacific Island team in Super Rugby Aotearoa next year. Pacific Rugby Players chief executive, Aayden Clarke, explains why this must happen, how it should ideally operate and what it will mean for generations of Island rugby players to come.

The XV: Firstly, who do you represent and what is your role in leading this players association?

New Zealand has made it a priority to include a Pacific Island team in Super Rugby Aotearoa next year. Pacific Rugby Players chief executive, Aayden Clarke, explains why this must happen, how it should ideally operate and what it will mean for generations of Island rugby players to come.

The XV: Firstly, who do you represent and what is your role in leading this players association?

Aayden Clarke: I stand on the shoulders of giants. The giants are past players of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa and those who have worn and who currently wear the jerseys with such passion for their countries. These players made a stand that the players of the Pacific need voice and representation and that’s what we do. 

We have hugely active and long-standing board members such as Seilala Mapusua, Hale T-Pole and Deacon Manu who I have mountains of respect for in terms of how they have staunchly fought for the benefit of Pacific Island rugby players, but there are also hundreds of current and past players who we listen to, support and report back to. It is these people who guide and direct PRP. 

I work for the players and it is for them whom I apply my rugby administration experience and skills and work hard on trying to achieve the very best future for Pacific Island rugby and all the players across the world. 

We have been here before with strong proclamations from Super Rugby that they want to welcome a Pacific Island team and yet it has never happened. Why do you think it is different this time?

There has never been a better time than now. We have seen a few iterations of people being interested and talking about it in the past, but the door has never been genuinely ajar like it now is. We now find ourselves in a different situation because of the new competition but also the realisation of what a Pacific Island team could bring in terms of fan engagement and entertainment.

Why is it so important to the wider Pacific region to have an Island team involved in Super Rugby?

Why it needs to be there is that it’s a missing cog in the pathway of the Pacific Island player. There are high performance plans and under-age teams that lead into test teams, but at the moment the pathway once you really decide you want to become a full-time professional, is definitely through Europe.

There are limited opportunities in New Zealand and Australia because of the eligibility quotas in place. At the moment, players and their families have to go a long way offshore to earn a living. So quite simply, it would provide another option. There are many players we work with who love the opportunity to get away and live in Paris, UK or experience living in Japan and whatnot. It gives them a great lifestyle and experience. But at the moment that is the only option, so the ability to be a professional and stay closer to home and earn a living in this part of the world is hugely important.

PRP chairman Hale T-Pole during his playing days with Southland. (Photo by Rob Jefferies/Getty Images)

You say play closer to home which brings up the topic of where exactly this team, should it be granted a licence, would be based. There has been talk that it might be based in South Auckland or West Sydney but would that give it authenticity? Can it really be a Pacific Island team if it is not based in one or all three of the major Pacific Islands?

Our position on this is that a true Pacific Island franchise will be based in the Islands in the long term. But we are realistic and know that given the current and foreseen travel restrictions, in 2021 and 2022 such a team may need to be based in New Zealand or Australia to be part of Super Rugby. 

But longer term, the players tell us they want to see genuine benefit in the Pacific nations and they see being based in the Pacific as being the best way to ensure that. For such a pivotal team to be genuinely connected to communities and to realise the huge potential of benefits for the three Pacific nations, we are yet to be convinced that it shouldn’t be based there.

It would be superb to have regular satellite games in Auckland, Western Sydney, Asia…North America, but the heart of it – the ownership and governance is another conversation – we believe should be in the Islands and include the presence of FRU, TRU and SRU.

The media, and probably everyone else, has used the umbrella term Pasifika to imply that a team should be composite – an amalgamation of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Yet they have differing cultures, identities, goals and ambitions and strong individual desires to play on the world stage as themselves. So what is your preferred vision for a Pacific Island team? Should it be a hybrid team as everyone seems to think?

From our perspective it is a composite team that has equal ownership and equal voice in governance and equal benefits. But we are not naive about the barriers that are in place to achieve that because of the rugby politics of the Pacific region and each country’s respective ambitions. And another factor is the strength of Fiji at the moment and quite rightly they deserve to feel they are in a position at the moment to do this alone.

But for this to have long-term benefits for all the Pacific Islands – and I’m talking the next 20-to-50-to-100 years – it somehow has to have that equal spread.

In my four years in this role I often hear people put Pacific Islanders in the same basket when they are actually all very unique in their own way. Not only their beautiful cultures, but also in the fabric of their rugby. When I first came into this role I was apprehensive that I was Maori and did not have the heritage of one of the three nations, but it turned out to be such a great asset for us because I can hover across each country’s rugby activities and not be biased in any way. I am able to appreciate both sides of the story, see different perspectives and be genuinely transparent and unbiased. Can you imagine if I was Tongan and walking into negotiate sevens contracts with John O’Connor (Fiji CEO), there is no way John would be as open as sharing as much information as he does, and if I was Samoan doing it with TRU I imagine it would be the same. I guess what I am saying is that in my experience, it’s going to be imperative to have a good balance of Pacific Island contribution at ownership, governance and operational levels, but at the same time there will need to be people in there who are transparent and unbiased and running the organisation for the genuine benefit of all three nations. That is not going to be easy, but us as the voice of the players, we feel it’s worth putting the energy into. 

Being the Players Association across Fiji, Tonga and Samoa effectively makes you Switzerland and so in the case of a possible composite Pacific Super Rugby team, who would be able to play the same neutral role to ensure there was effective governance, cohesion and decision-making being made for the good of all three nations involved?

I think there needs to be a Switzerland but I don’t necessarily think it has to be a New Zealand or Australia as per current discussions. For anyone to be effective in helping put this all together, they need to be close to the coalface of how rugby is in the Pacific and understand the aspirations of the nations and their challenges. Not to say this is always the case, but sometimes in the rugby world New Zealanders see things through a New Zealand lense and Australians or others do the same.

Our position on this is that a true Pacific Island franchise will be based in the Islands in the long term.

Aayden Clarke, PRP chief executive

It would be fantastic for these Tier One countries to offer expertise, advice and experience to help set this franchise up, incubate it and support it for the good of rugby. The Pacific deserves that help from New Zealand and Australia. But this team should not be attached to the mother ship long term. 

This is an amazing opportunity for Pacific Island rugby and is exactly what we as a Players Association are here for – to help unearth strategically an opportunity that is going to help the players of not just this generation but the next two or three. 

At the moment New Zealand has made it a stated priority to have a Pacific team in Super Rugby Aotearoa while Australia has also said it too wants a Pacific team to be involved in their competition. Is it possible to believe there could be two Pacific teams in two separate Super Rugby competitions next year or would that be a case of trying to walk before you can run?

I think you could have a team in each based on the population and talent within both of the countries, but they wouldn’t have that genuine connection back to the Islands. You could, but we don’t feel that’s a smart approach. I think walking before we can run would be the smart option.

We are across the five or six parties that are interested in running/owning a Pacific team and our role is offering all these groups advice, our experience and perspective from the players. We are learning there are many pros and cons for both New Zealand and Australia interest in this. 

Commercially, possibly, West Sydney and Australia is a bigger attraction than New Zealand. But in New Zealand there are more experienced, connected and well respected Pacific Island rugby minds who are driving their ambitions and this brings extra opportunity to the table. Then there is the question of whether a team should be based in Auckland when they will be jammed between the Blues and the Chiefs. We are yet to be convinced that this option won’t cannibalise the fan base in the region

But here’s the thing: do you think they – New Zealand and Australia – are going to end up in the same competition? Long term I think they will depending on how Covid-19 affects restrictions in coming years. 

Seru Vularika of the Drua looks to offloads the ball during the 2019 NRC Semi Final match between the Canberra Vikings and Fijian Drua. (Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

Mostly everyone would agree that this does appear to be an unprecedented opportunity to finally push a Pacific Island team into Super Rugby. There is seemingly a genuine desire for it to happen which maybe hasn’t been the case in the past. So what, from your perspective, could stop it from happening? Are there any potential banana skins that could be slipped on here?

I guess in the past money has been an issue. But I think now, financially, the onus comes on the competition owner and it sounds like this may be NZR. Fiji had a crack at being involved in Super Rugby last year. There was a comprehensive feasibility study completed by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but in that case, Sanzaar had made it really clear that the team would not be getting any broadcast revenue and they were also required to pay near $10 million up front as a bond.

The situation has changed now and I feel the competition owners very much need this team from the Pacific from a fan engagement and broadcast value perspective. So there is a better chance they will be on the same level as the other franchises and receiving the same share. That makes it a lot more achievable for whomever owns the team to make it financially sustainable, so I don’t see money being the same banana skin it has been in the past.

Potentially we have a lot of groups with a lot of desire to win the licence and they could cut each other off at the knees. We feel it would be a shame not to have more collaboration. We have three interested groups all in Auckland. Does that make sense? They all have their own plans, having their own conversations putting a lot of energy into their own ideas. That worries me a little bit. Essentially they are all working towards the common goal of trying to stand up a Pacific Island Super Rugby team for the good of Pasifika rugby and people. Maybe they should all be at the same table?

From the perspective of all the players, we don’t care so much about who owns it. We care about whether it has meaningful benefit for Pacific Island rugby and that means it has to fit in as an uplifting opportunity for our three nations to perform better at the 2023 World Cup. Whether some like it or not, the fourth stakeholder in this equation is World Rugby and they too need to be part of uplifting this franchise and therefore can ensure such a team fits seamlessly into the high-performance pathway for players.

And that brings into play the question of whether stepping foot in Super Rugby as it were opens the door to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga becoming part of the Rugby Championship?

It becomes the next step. We have always been a fan that there should be a second tier Rugby Championship with promotion and relegation. Those three teams could operate in that very easily. This Super Rugby franchise would be the feeder for that group.

If you look at the Jaguares they were about 90 per cent of the Argentinian national team. And they were really strong because they were able to play regular rugby together.  

There will still be a desire for Pacific Island players to be playing in Europe but this is going to provide a base for more talent to come through and set up all the resources that come with it. It will also provide an identity and no other team has the potential to be a global product if we get the right brands around the table.

I will tell you now, and I know I am biased towards Pacific Island rugby and am hugely passionate about it, but if this Super Rugby team gets going, and we have Fiji, Tonga and Samoa playing in some sort of Rugby Championship competition, we will be coming for the world. People will see the Pacific test teams achieving amazing test wins on the big stage and this will in time mean more commercial money for them and will also galvanise the huge community support across the world. Test wins at World Cup play-off games against the big nations like New Zealand and Australia. What an amazing outcome that will be, and it’s how it should be.

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