False dawn for Pacific nations?
June 27, 2012
Scotland returned unbeaten from their tour of Australia, Fiji and Samoa but how often will Tier 1 nations be visiting the Pacific Islands? © PA Photos
Fiji and Samoa's delight at playing host to a top nation during the recent action-paced tours window looks to be short-lived with visits from the world's best sides set to be few and far between in the coming years.
Scotland became the first Tier 1 side to play a Test in the Pacific Islands since 2006 when they tackled Fiji and Samoa on home soil earlier this month and they were widely praised for making the trip. But in truth they had little choice in the matter if they wanted to play Test rugby this month due to a long-term tours schedule seemingly loaded in the favour of the sport's biggest sides.
The Scots' visit and their warm welcome not only revitalised the under-fire tourists but also a tired touring schedule that has long neglected one of the traditional talent hotbeds for the game. Far from being able to feast on this seemingly elevated status, the Pacific nations are destined to live off scraps in the June window in the immediate future with only Wales slated to venture their way and not until 2017. Add in the fact that North America is poised to host more touring sides than the Pacific nations then there would appear to be cause for concern. Those alarming facts may not be as unfair as they first appear but you will be hard-pressed to find an explanation to back that up.
Italy were the last Tier 1 nation to play a Test in Pacific Islands, losing 29-18 to Fiji, while England have not graced the region since beating the same opposition in Suva in 1991. As a result, it was unsurprising that the International Rugby Board hailed the return of in-bound tours to the Islands with the implementation of the '2012-2019 IRB Tours and Test schedule' that was hammered out by the game's stakeholders following a lengthy consultation process.
"The IRB is currently investing £9 million in Pacific Islands Rugby development, competition and high performance structures and the expanded Test schedule underscores the IRB's commitment to delivering the framework for the Pacific Islands to play more rankings Tests and continue to develop towards cementing their place at rugby's top table," said Mark Egan, the IRB's head of development and performance, on the eve of the latest inter-hemisphere clashes.
Exact details were and remain scarce with individual unions left to confirm their own movements while the reasoning behind the changes may be unknown to many. The schedule was driven by the southern hemisphere giants who demanded financial stability having previously had to host under-strength touring sides from the north and weather the economic impact of decisions out of their hands. At the same time the northern hemisphere powerhouses were wary they may leave themselves open to the same kind of treatment during the November international window and were keen to keen to deflect advances from their rivals below the equator aimed at claiming a share of the revenue from the ever-popular end-of-year clashes.
The result was a promise from England, France, Ireland and Wales to take full-strength squads to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on rotation for three-Test series that is was hoped would sell the coffers of the host unions while generating a spike in interest. While lining the pockets of the already cash-rich unions, this move also denied the northern hemisphere sides the chance to include a Test clash against a Pacific nation on any trip to the region.
Scotland and Italy were not deemed worthy, on both a commercial and competition level, of three Tests and so had to accept prospect of one-off Tests against the big boys. What wasn't in the script was Scotland upsetting Australia in a game that the Wallabies were not compelled to stage. As a result Australia may think twice about being so generous while Scotland will just have to hope that such results reflect well on them when the consultation process begins again in a few years' time.
It was then a matter of deciding where the Scots and their Italian counterparts would tour, with Argentina also in the mix, and how the game could still honour its promise to develop the game in the three key geographic areas - the Pacific Islands, Asia and North America. The fact that there are six touring sides to be shared around seven possible destinations just adds to the logistical headache.
Japan were guaranteed the chance to host major Tests every year between 2015 and 2019 due to the need to build awareness and a loyal fan base ahead of the first World Cup in the Far East. With Japan handed a large share of what was available, North America took second precedence due to the fact that the Pacific nations were already assured of exposure to the top sides during the November international window - a blessing not yet afforded the likes of the USA and Canada.
Such a set-up may not help Fiji, Samoa and Tonga develop the game on their own shores but at least their players are benefitting from a healthy amount of exposure to top-class rugby. What amounts to a complex jigsaw appears to make sense although the IRB are guilty of not showing their working having passed what was a difficult examination.
There appears to be some room for manoeuvre outside of the headline-grabbing clashes between the Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides that offers hope to fans in the Pacific. A visit by Wales looks possible next year but any side that makes the trip, in what would have to be an addition to their scheduled clash with Japan, will be shorn of those players on British & Irish Lions duty in Australia.
There is also a remote hope that the Lions who head to New Zealand in 2017 may offer the Islands a show of support but such are the economic demands surrounding the elite tourists that even a typically evangelical act would surely have to take place on the more commercially viable Kiwi soil. And given the way fans flocked around the Pacific nations during the recent World Cup in New Zealand then such an event sounds incredibly promising.
The World Cup remains the Pacific nations' best hope of bloodying the nose of their infinitely better funded rivals with calls for Australia and New Zealand to do more to support what many see as their feeder system set to intensify once again. Those two rugby superpowers have played a meagre 12 Test matches against Fiji, Samoa and Tonga since the turn of the century with two of those falling during a World Cup. Neither side has visited their Pacific neighbours since 1984 when both took on Fiji in Suva although the Maori have been more frequent travellers.
We can only hope that they and the rest of the elite rugby world take heart and inspiration from the experience of the Scots on their recent visit.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.