At the 2019 edition of the World Cup, "42 players from the Pacific played for nations other than their own". The figure is given by Daniel Leo, former captain of the Samoan team, in the documentary "Oceans Apart" that he directed himself. A player can opt for a team other than that of his country of birth, provided he respects different rules imposed by World Rugby, the world federation. And the major nations of this sport, including France, have almost all integrated, in recent years, players from these three archipelagos.

Spread over several hundred islands, these countries are experiencing serious economic and social difficulties. Tonga, with an estimated population of 105,000, has – according to the International Monetary Fund – one of the lowest GDPs in the world. And in these three Pacific nations, rugby is a way out. Their robust and talented rugby players aspire to play in Europe where the salaries paid allow them to support their families. And they also know that the conditions offered by the national teams of rich countries are much more advantageous. A reason that encourages them to give up wearing the jersey of their country of origin.

For several decades, Australia and New Zealand have benefited from this high-quality pool. For example, Samoan or Tongan immigration is very high in New Zealand and many players from these communities wear the All Blacks jersey, like the late rugby legend Jonah Lomu. Other countries have taken over more recently, starting with Japan, which has been able to count on the arrival of half a dozen Pacific players who have greatly contributed to its strong sporting progress.

Nations that weigh little

Dan Leo has become the figurehead of the defence of these rugby players from the southern hemisphere. He founded the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW) association, which helps players from these three nations. It puts forward the figure of 600 members, mainly professional players playing in Europe. Not all are pampered recruits playing in posh clubs, and some players struggle to assert their rights against negligent or dishonest leaders.

The former Samoan third row, who played in France for Bordeaux and Perpignan, is also fighting against the international bodies that manage rugby. He called for more resources for the Pacific nations and denounced their under-representation on the World Rugby Council, the supreme body of this sport: only Fiji and Samoa were represented, and had only two votes, while the most influential members had three each. A system of governance that, according to PRPW, allows wealthier nations to put their interests first at the expense of smaller nations.

"Dan tackled all of these issues when many others didn't want to or couldn't. He was vocal and brave," says James Nokise. This New Zealander of Samoan and Welsh origin is a comedian, writer and podcaster. And he has just made the podcast "Fair Game" on Pacific players, in collaboration with former New Zealand player John Daniell, who became a journalist after his professional career. "The goal is to explain the situation of these players," says James Nokise, helping fans in the northern hemisphere "to get to know these players better that they cheer" every weekend.

Insufficient preparation

Throughout the episodes of this rich podcast, James Nokise and John Daniell give the floor to different players in Pacific Island rugby and expose the difficulties they face. During his career in New Zealand and nine seasons spent with three French clubs, John Daniell has rubbed shoulders with many Samoan, Tongan and Fijian players. He discovered their exceptional cultures and the difficulty for them to be able to reconcile their careers in club and national team.

"These Pacific nations are in an exceptional situation for several reasons, starting with their geographical remoteness. But the biggest injustice that strikes them is this story of votes in the Council," says John Daniell in perfect French. For him, powerful nations defend their own interests and do not allow them to fully integrate the world of professional rugby. In particular, it highlights international calendars: while France has faced the best teams in the world many times between the 2019 World Cup and the next, Samoa, currently 11th in the world ranking, have faced during these four years only one team in the top 10, Italy. Tonga, ranked 15th, experienced a similar scenario, while Fiji (13th) fared better as they faced Ireland and Scotland last autumn.

"I think it's become clear that what separates the big nations from the Pacific nations, aside from money and means, is the time they can spend together as a team," Nokise said. Less prepared, these teams lack cohesion and fail to express their full potential at the World Cups, even though Fiji and Samoa have both already managed to play two quarter-finals since the first edition of this competition in 1987.

The stars of the Flying Fijians

To help them improve, World Rugby has fostered the creation of two franchises competing in Super Rugby, the hemisphere's professional competition that sees Australian, South African and New Zealand franchises compete against each other. Moana Pasifika features Tongan players, Samoan and New Zealand while the Fijian Drua field only Fijians who spend the entire season together. But the latter does not count on the stars of the Flying Fijians like Semi Radradra or Josua Tuisova, who play respectively in England and France.

World Rugby justified the funding of this project by the desire "to raise the level of competitiveness of rugby worldwide and more particularly in view of the Rugby World Cups". Faced with its critics, the governing body of rugby ensures to act in favor of these teams of the Pacific, while highlighting the difficulty of moving forward because of the lack of effective structures in these countries. Cases of embezzlement within local federations have been relayed by the players themselves who have repeatedly denounced the squandering of allocated budgets. Poor management which, according to John Daniell, cannot justify limiting the financial support provided to these islands. "It's far too easy to say that they haven't managed this funding well and that they can't be trusted anymore. It drives me crazy given what we have seen recently elsewhere, in France for example," he said, referring to the recent conviction for corruption of the former president of the French Rugby Federation.

The debate over the functioning of these Pacific federations is sure to resurface in the run-up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. On the pitch, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, who are in three different pools, hope to reach the finals of this competition, something they have not done since the 2007 edition. The Fijians then managed to dismiss Wales and lost in the quarters against the Springboks, future winners of this edition already organized in France. A performance that these brilliant players, Olympic champions of rugby sevens in Rio and Tokyo, hope to repeat.

20 teams for a title

The 2023 World Cup, which will take place from 8 September to 28 October in ten French cities, will see 20 teams divided into four groups compete for the world title. France 24 offers you, between now and the kick-off of this major sporting event, a series of articles on the teams in the running. With a publication the "XV" of each month.

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