Troubled Times for Island Rugby

Samoa, and Fiji, surprisingly backed the re-election of Sir Bill Beaumont to the chairmanship of World Rugby.

These are troubled times for rugby. These are still troubled times for Samoan rugby too.

Manu Samoa, after a poor Rugby World Cup showing, is ranked 15th on the planet, behind Fiji, Tonga and Georgia, a far cry from the ranking of seventh in 2012 and light years from the glory days just before rugby went pro when they reached the RWC quarter-finals of 1991 and ’95.

At the time of writing, we don’t yet know when the team will suit up again. The union has to find a new coach after the departure of Steve Jackson. Ditto the Samoa Sevens, who were placed a lowly 13th on the World Series circuit when it was suspended. They had yet to qualify for the Olympics and Sir Gordon Tietjens resigned in May after an ill-fated tenure in which he appeared to not win too many admirers.

To top it all off, it seems that Samoa broke the Southern Hemisphere ranks (along with Fiji) and voted for the re-election of Sir Bill Beaumont as World Rugby’s chairman.

There were cries of ‘sellout’ from some in New Zealand, and clearly some type of backroom deal was done. Don’t hold your breath, though, for a swift overhaul of the player eligibility rules or to suddenly see a heap of tier one nations come and play at Apia Park. It hasn’t happened with Australia, England, Ireland, Argentina or South Africa yet, while the All Blacks have played just once in Samoa, as have France. Wales and Scotland have visited, though not often.

In truth, Samoa has copped a raw deal from Sanzaar and Southern Hemisphere rugby in general. For years, it had a non-voting World Rugby voice through Oceania (which, incidentally, hitched itself to the Gus Pichot wagon) and relied on New Zealand rugby to push its cases. The result was that Manu Samoa was marginalised on the international schedule, its best players were part of a huge diaspora and, lacking broadcasting clout, it was frozen out of Super Rugby.

Its governance has improved to the extent it now carries a full vote at World Rugby’s table (Tonga does not), but its rugby has gone backwards, despite the talent of Samoan players all over the globe. However, Covid-19 has not hit the Pacific Islands as hard as Europe, so once border restrictions are relaxed, why could not the All Blacks and Wallabies play Manu Samoa, Tonga and Fiji in 2020, perhaps even home and away?

Nice thought, but Manu Samoa has far more chance of playing the All Blacks in New Zealand. NZR is desperate to get its flagship team in front of its home fans this year. The Bledisloe Cup will be on.

But why not an annual Peter Fatialofa Memorial Trophy match? This would be more than just a goodwill gesture. It would cement the bonds that have loosened in recent times.

This article first appeared in the July Rugby News magazine.