AUCKLAND, New Zealand: April 20, 2021: 12pm (STUFF NZ): Former All Blacks legend Sir Bryan Williams, the announcement that Super Rugby was finally opening its doors to the Pacific Islands ended a quarter of a century of frustration, and opened up a whole world of anticipation.
Williams, the great All Black of the 1970s who became an icon to a generation for his groundbreaking deeds in the game, has been a key pillar of the Moana Pasifika bid to gain a place at the Super Rugby table, as patron and driving force behind the consortium.
Last Thursday their ambition took a giant stride towards becoming a reality when New Zealand Rugby announced that both the Aotearoa-based Moana Pasifika, who are looking at Eden Park as one of their home venues, and the Fijian Drua had been granted conditional inclusion in the planned new trans-Tasman franchise competition being put together for 2022 and beyond, which may or may not continue to bear the Super Rugby moniker.
There is still some work to be done – notably around meeting key commercial obligations, as well as getting Rugby Australia’s final signoff – but there is a confidence that these are minor steps that can be taken in stride for both organisations. The Pacific Islands rugby community finally have a seat at the professional rugby table, and the great Beegee Williams, for one, could not be happier.
“I am absolutely chuffed,” said Williams, pumping his arms in delight at Thursday’s official announcement. “Twenty-five years ago the Rugby World Cup in South Africa took place … and everyone was trying to find their place in professional rugby. Unfortunately the Pacific Islands got left out in the cold. It’s been 25 years of a sense of huge disappointment and grievance about [being] left out of the mainstream professional competitions.”
Williams spoke about Samoa, whom he coached in the ‘90s, making the quarterfinals of the 1991 and ’95 World Cups, and about Fiji getting there in 1987, and the struggles they and Tonga have faced since after being essentially squeezed out of the professional game.
Later, in an interview with Stuff, Williams, born in New Zealand but of Samoan heritage, spoke of the huge implications this single decision has for the sport in the Pacific, and the Pasifika people in general. A generation of young men now have professional teams imbued by their culture to aspire to. And multiple generations of people have teams they can rally behind.
“I think it has real implications for the national teams and national unions, and that has been one of our objectives,” says Williams. “I can see a day when we could have a really meaningful international competition between Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and perhaps even Japan… our own Six Nations. And it will be very competitive.
“Rugby league has embraced that sort of thing, mainly because they are a smaller sport, and haven’t got so many participating nations. That enthusiasm that Mate Ma’a Tonga engendered [in league] was fantastic, and I can see much the same sort of thing happening here.”
Asked what was required between now and next year for Moana Pasifika to be a viable ongoing entity, Williams pleaded for patience and perseverance.
“We need to put an infrastructure in place. Money is certainly part of the equation, and coaches and a roster of players who are going to be competitive. Hopefully they’ll give us a little bit of time to put those things in place. Any new franchise coming into any professional competition will take a bit of time to get their feet on the ground.
“One thing that gives me a huge amount of confidence … I went to a tag tournament in Papakura recently, there were thousands of kids, and the skill level was so high. The great majority of these kids were Pasifika. So the kids are there. They’re just waiting for their opportunity.
“This also has got implications for international rugby and I think that’s going to be a big plus.”
Williams revealed Mount Smart Stadium (the Warriors’ home venue) and Eden Park were among venues being talked to as potential home grounds, while Pukekohe’s stadium has also been mentioned in despatches. In terms of players, Williams echoed Sir Michael Jones’ belief that these teams could spark a return of experienced Pasifika players from the north.
Already the Tonga and Fiji unions have revealed being contacted by players in the north around the prospect of returning to be part of these teams.
“We’ve spoken to a number of players and they’re really starting to embrace this team and what it means,” says Williams. “The team that played New Zealand Maori in December, the players were just over the moon. You could see the guys just celebrating their heritage. I don’t see too many difficulties in that regard.
“I’ve heard from different sources in France and the UK that things are getting tougher over there and players are contemplating coming home. The situation with Covid feeds into that as well.”
The other notable aspect of Moana Pasifika is how it co-exists with the Blues in the Auckland region. The established franchise understandably has some misgivings about a second team sharing the city limits, but Williams believes there is plenty of room for both.
“They used to tell us once you needed 350,000 people to create a franchise …. Well, we’ve got 1.5 million people, so that’s four franchises. It just needs a bit of lateral thinking.
“I accept the Blues will have some concerns, but we’re all sports people. You go out on the field and if you win people follow you and if you lose some people don’t follow you. That’s going to be the marketplace, and the Blues have got 25 years’ start on us.
“We’re all feeling that people are suspicious about what our motives are, but I can assure them they are genuine, and they are pure.”
Importantly, the national unions of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji stand firmly behind these entities, which have had significant support from World Rugby via a$2.3 million-a-year funding package for an initial three-year period.
“They can see the benefits that are going to ensue from being in this sort of competition,” adds Williams. “They’ve tried in the past to do various things but perhaps haven’t had the clout and infrastructure to get them across the line. From my perspective they haven’t had a fair go and we are seeking to change that.”
In terms of whether Moana Pasifika potentially diverts players with Pacific heritage away from All Blacks ambitions, Williams isn’t so sure about that.
“There will still be many of our Pasifika kids who want to be All Blacks, like me, like Michael [Jones]. I don’t believe we’re taking that away. The All Blacks still have that mystique and pulling power, but it will be up to individuals who they want to play for. This will just be another option.”
And that, after all, is all the Pacific Islands rugby community have sought for a quarter of a century. They just want to be part of the story. Not excluded from it….