By Sri Krishnamurthi for Asia-Pacific Report
While the All Blacks and Springboks will play their 100th test tomorrow both Pacific rugby teams are preparing for next year’s Super Rugby Pacific and a journey into the unknown.
The Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika will debut in the 12 team-competition which includes five teams each from Australia and New Zealand.
While the Fiji Drua were awarded their unconditional licence back in April and are yet to complete their roster, Moana Pasifika revealed this week they have just eight places remaining to be filled in their 38-man squad since being granted their licence in July.
Interim chief executive officer of Moana Pasifika, Pelenato Sakalia told RNZ Pacific Sport, “we’ll take our time on filling those eight additional spots, but I’d like to think we’ve broken the back of the squad, [because] 30 out of 38 is quite a significant chunk.”
They are likely to name Aaron Mauger, former head coach of the Otago Highlanders, as coach.
Mauger deputised for Tana Umaga when Moana Pasifika came together last year in a one-off game against the New Zealand Māori which they lost 28-21.
Like Fiji Drua they are yet to confirm their coaches although Fiji Drua was to have named their coach this week.
Australian Mick Byrne appointed coach
Late this afternoon Fiji Drua announced experienced Australian Mick Byrne as head coach. Byrne was previously assistant and skills coach for the Wallabies, All Blacks, Japan and Scotland.
He was also assistant coach of the Auckland Blues from 2012 to 2014.
However, Fiji Drua will have to rely on mainly Fiji or regional based players to fill their roster and they are to have a home base in Australia for the first season.
Fiji Drua’s interim chief executive officer Brian Thorburn said the delay in confirming the competition structure had resulted in not being able to sign up players based in Europe.
He told RNZ Pacific Sport: “As a result, many of the guys that were on our original list who were playing in Europe had to choose between a firm commitment and opportunity in Europe versus an unconfirmed commitment coming out of us, and we just couldn’t sign anybody.
“But having said that, every cloud has a silver lining. We’ve got a great pipeline of talent, that’s one of the wonderful things, and we are very happy with the guys that we’re signing be they local provincial rugby or from the sevens sphere.
“Our aspiration is for every player that plays for Drua to be eligible for national duty, but in some cases, we’ll have to compromise that for the first year or two.”
Australian-based Thorburn said there would be times when would have to play a “joker”.
“We’ll have to contract the odd what we call a joker, where somebody who is not otherwise eligible to play for Fiji, might have to fill an area of weakness for us.”
Both he and Fiji Rugby CEO John O’Connor admitted the new rugby franchise would have to contract players not eligible for the Flying Fijians.
“We are starting on a journey and our players here are amateurs. We are transiting them into the professional environment. It’s our first year and we will continue to grow and learn as we participate in the competition.
“That is why we are not competing with those players who are on six-figure contracts in Europe,” O’Connor told The Fiji Times.
Fiji Drua announced their first five players this week with exciting utility back Napoloni Bolaca, an Olympic gold medalist, among their first signings.
Others were Flying Fijians’ hooker Tevita Ikanivere, winger Onisi Ratave who played for the Bay of Plenty in their unsuccessful bid for the Ranfurly Shield against Hawke’s Bay, loose forward Nemani Nagusa and halfback Simione Kuruvoli.
While it appears that the South Auckland-based franchise Moana Pasifika aren’t having recruitment issues, they have nonetheless faced some hurdles of their own.
NZ link criticised
The involvement of the New Zealand Rugby Player Association (NZRPA) chief executive Rob Nichol, who has said three current, potential or former All Blacks can be selected for Moana Pasifika, has drawn the ire of Pacific Rugby Players’ Welfare boss Daniel Leo.
He commented on Twitter that the NZRPA was there to look after the welfare of New Zealand players and shouldn’t be involved in the Moana Pasifika process.
“Their mandate is to advance the NZ players at any cost. Not Pacific Island players,’’ Leo posted on Twitter.
“The fact they are key stakeholders in Moana and one of their employees is the general manager has alarm bells ringing.’’ He was referring to Kevin Senio, former All Blacks halfback, who is the director of Rugby Moana Pasifika.
Senio responded to Dan Leo’s claims when he appeared on Sky Sport’s Breakdown show.
“Eighty percent of the team will have to be eligible and/or have played for Samoa, Tonga or Fiji,” Senio told The Breakdown.
“For those who are going to align themselves into Moana Pasifika, you can’t play for the All Blacks or Australia.”
Back in April when former Wallaby turned rugby commentator Morgan Turinui wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that Moana Pasifika would become a feeder franchise for the All Blacks.
“To put it simply, Moana Pasifika look to be another NZ franchise who will funnel players through to the All Blacks,” Turinui wrote.
World Rugby has confirmed a £1.2m (NZ$2.3 million) annual funding package for an initial three-year period to support the two franchises, Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika, in joining Super Rugby from 2022.