Pacific Nations: How can they compete against the Tier One nations?

Tonga's players react after their defeat during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between Argentina and Tonga at the Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashiosaka on September 28, 2019. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pacific Nations arguably produces some of the best players in world rugby but, their sides struggle to perform. A major talking point pre-World Cup was the number of players from the Pacific playing for the Tier One nations.

However, Fiji showed glimpses of their world-class quality in the first half against Australia; as well as Tonga, putting in a strong shift against England.

So why in their second round matches did they struggle?

Fiji didn’t select their strongest side for Uruguay. With many players moving to the likes of New Zealand or Europe that qualify from residency, Fiji’s strength in depth is lacking compared to the big nations.

Being just a small island their player pool is small to start with and grassroots level not having the same amount of investment as they would need to stay at a consistent high level.

That’s why the prospect of big money abroad can appear attractive when they come from that certain background and culture.

Tonga struggled to overpower the Argentinians and let them run away early on. Tonga showed their quality at times such as Telusa Veainu’s second try with after a great offload from Cooper Vuna.

 

They have a similar issue to Fiji in that they have a lack of strength in depth so don’t have the quality spread across the bench that the top sides do.

It’s also the lack of exposure to top level rugby with Tonga having only faced two Tier One sides since the last world cup.

Many gave Samoa a chance against Scotland with the northern hemisphere outfit having been on a poor run of form in 2019.

However, their lack of organization and unforced errors stopped them from really being able to challenge the Scots. This comes down to their recent financial issues that have affected the quality of coaching and facilities that (even with World Rugby investment) are not at the level this country deserves.

How to help the Pacific Nations compete at the top level?

The main issue is that there are too many islanders moving abroad and playing for that national team and then maybe not being selected due to certain circumstances.

Examples of this include Charles Piutau who both moved to the Premiership meaning he was no longer going to be selected for New Zealand.

However, a solution to this is a system that is in place in Rugby League in which players can play for a Tier Two nation if not selected for the Tier One nation.

Players are eligible to play for the Tier Two nation if they have parents/grandparents of that country, residency or have played for that country at a youth level.

 

This would allow a number of players that have been exiled by the tier one nation to still compete on the world stage. This would also increase that strength in depth of the Pacific Islands squad as well as the quality of play.

The experience of players that have been involved in the world’s best teams would be able to bring that world class quality to the squad which would allow the teams to establish organisation and a style of play to compete for the full 80 minutes with top tier sides.

World Rugby has already made some changes.

One player who has already made this switch at the top level with Tonga’s Cooper Vuna switching allegiances after being capped twice for Australia.

World Rugby bought in new rules in 2016 due to the Olympic sevens that allowed players to change nation through passport or residency but only after a three-year waiting period.

Vuna has shown his quality already in this World Cup and is a valuable asset to the squad as he has the ability to play on the wing or in the centers.

Vuna also played League for Tonga but had also been selected for a New Zealand training squad so is getting quite familiar with nation hopping.

 

The three-year waiting period means it will mean it is likely to be later in the player’s career when they can switch.

This will not have the same effect as allowing players at the top of their game to play on the international stage so it requires leniency from World Rugby to nation changes.

Changing nation [allegiance] is not a light decision and arguments of the concept devaluing the shirt will be in players’ minds. However, if a player is sure they want to commit to playing for another country they should be able to move freely – and a system like in League would allow that to happen.

This would overall improve the quality of the Pacific Nations and allow them to compete against the best top tier sides.

 

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