By Gregor Paul

Plunder in the Pacific

In the last 20 years athletes from the Pacific Islands have made a dramatic impact on world rugby. They are in demand everywhere which is why the New Zealand Rugby Union has moved to protect what many believe are their best assets.

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Originally published in NZ Rugby World #161, page 29

NEW JONAH Comparisons between Julian Savea and Jonah Lomu are going to be inevitable.

IT’S NOT a coincidence that the All Blacks listed winning the next World Cup and protecting players of Pacific Island origin as two of their strategic goals between now and 2016. The two are very much linked.

Rugby has reached the point where the margins are incredibly tight between the top teams. Results can surprise more than they used to: remember last December when the All Blacks came into their final game of the season undefeated and met an England side that was on the ropes? The ultimately comfortable, but hard-fought victory that was predicted never came. The All Blacks were off their best by 10 per cent, England were bang on and the home side coasted to a record victory. A few months later in Cardiff, the previously unfancied Wales smashed England by 30 points. One mistake these days, or one act of brilliance and a test can be sent spinning on its axis.

Some of the factors that can influence the outcome are out with the control of the coach or his players – a random bounce or a poor call from the officials can swing a game dramatically. But there is plenty that can be controlled: there are ways and means to win the inches or deliver the vital plays that make the difference.

The ball carriers who can break the first tackle are invaluable. The men who can make high impact, bone-jarring tackles that can lift a team mentally and change the momentum of the game are invaluable. The power finishers who are fast, strong and agile – imminently capable of beating defenders one-on-one…they, too, are invaluable. 

Every top side these days has access to sports science – to fitness trainers, to nutritionists and physios. Every top side can build a defensive structure, work on attacking ploys and get their set-piece up to an acceptable standard. There are no easy areas to exploit in tests any more.

Space is at a premium: to find it, teams have to offer something special. They have to work for it and this is why so many players with Polynesian and Melanesian backgrounds are in demand. The Pacific Islands continue to produce an unfathomable number of world class players who make the difference. So many Islanders are ideally suited to the explosive nature of modern rugby. 

The influence of the Pacific Islands on New Zealand rugby is enormous – probably, if everyone is being honest, the single greatest advantage the game here has. The NZRU are certainly being honest about that which is why they are making unprecedented efforts to engage the Pacific Island community. Research is under way in a multitude of areas with the basic aim to attract, promote and protect the Pacific influence within New Zealand Rugby.

The protection part is probably the most important. The All Blacks will need a major Island influence in their side if they are to win the next World Cup. The rugby in 2015 will be intense, tight and absorbing. It’s always like that at World Cups and the All Blacks know their trump card is their flair and explosive power. 

They know they already have match-changing athletes in Julian Savea and Ma’a Nonu. They suspect that Steven Luatua could be another and, while he has a way to go, Ben Tameifuna is game-winner. These are the men with the explosive skills, physiques and necessary warrior spirit to elevate the All Blacks from the chasing pack.

But the influence of Pasifika runs right through the game here. The emerging stars at the vastly improved Blues this year have been Luatua, Francis Saili, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau. Ben Afeaki has impressed as a mobile, dynamic prop at the Chiefs – an obviously different sort of player to Owen Franks. Tim Nanai-Williams was maybe robbed of All Black selection because of injury while Jeffery Toomaga-Allen has been powerful with the Hurricanes. Of the 38 players named in the All Blacks wider training squad, 10 had Polynesian or Melanesian heritage. Further down the chain, nearly half the New Zealand Under-20 squad this year was from a Pacific background.

New Zealand knows the value of its diverse ethnic make-up; knows how important Pasifika has been and will continue to be. It also knows that everyone else knows.

Auckland, as the world’s largest Polynesian city, has an almost obscene amount of talent. The NRL, Australian, European and Japanese rugby scouts are greedy for what the city has and even the AFL is in on the act these days. It’s not being dramatic to say Auckland and it’s Pacific Island population are under siege. “They [Pacific Island-qualified New Zealanders] probably are [more vulnerable to offshore offers],” says NZRU chief executive Steve Tew. “Clearly that is a significant opportunity for Pacific Island players. That is why we have identified the need to do a piece of work because it is not straight- forward. We will have to have the help of those communities themselves, whose knowledge and understanding is probably best.”

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IT WAS a hard statistic to initially grasp – there were more Pacific Island-born players named in the touring British Lions squad than there were Scottish-born representatives. But if ever a long story was told in just one line – this was it. Since Samoa, or Western Samoa as they were in1991 enjoyed such an unforgettable World Cup campaign, the Pacific Islands have been rugby’s hottest property – or at least their players have been. The world has gone mad for all things Pasifika. New Zealand, with its close geographic, political and economic relationships with the wider Pacific region, has of course had a more pronounced Polynesian and Melanesian influence than any other country.

But that’s changing. Samoans, Fijians and Tongans are cropping up in every corner of the globe: Australia, USA, Japan, France, England, Wales and goodness knows where else. The greatest exports from the Islands is professional rugby players.

The three Islanders to make the Lions are Toby Faletau, the Tongan-born No 8 who was one of the stars of the Welsh team that reached the World Cup semi-final in 2011. Manu Tuilagi, who is England’s most exciting back in an age and Mako Vunipola, a New Zealand-born Tongan with the requisite frame to be England’s scrummaging cornerstone for the next decade. But in addition to these three, there are hundreds of Pacific Islanders scattered around the professional club scenes of Europe and Japan. 

Toulon and Clermont, who have battled each other all year for European supremacy, both have significant numbers of Pacific Islanders in their ranks: Chris Masoe, Rudi Wulf, David Smith and Jocelino Suta play for the former – Sitiveni Sivivatu, Tio Paulo, Napolioni Nalaga, Noa Nakaitaci and Kevin Senio for the latter. The demand is insatiable and incredibly the supply never seems to dry up. 

The last World Cup provided an overview of just how much things have changed globally since 1991. Back then the Pacific influence in world rugby was barely noticeable: the All Blacks were not reflective of their geographic location and there certainly weren’t any Polynesian or Melanesian players to be found in any teams other than Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

By 1999, there were six players in the All Black squad with Pacific Islands heritage; in 2003, it was nine, and in 2007, it was 11. In 2011 there were eight, but the Pacific influence was enormous across the World Cup. There were seven players of Polynesian or Melansesian heritage in the Australian team; seven in the US team; three in the Japanese team and there was Tuilagi playing for England and Faletau for Wales. There were 120 players at the World Cup who were either born in the Islands or considered themselves Pacific Islanders: that’s 20 per cent of all the players drawn from three tiny island nations whose combined population is barely a million.

Captain of the 1991 Samoan team, Peter Fatialofa says he had some sense of the impact they were having back in 1991. But he didn’t really. No one thought Samoans and Tongans would stand at Twickenham wearing England jerseys while booming out God Save the Queen, as both Tuilagi and Lesley Vainikolo have done. No one thought there would be times when the Blues would field 15 Pacific Islanders or that the biggest clubs in Europe would all insist on having at least one Polynesian wing. Least of all did anyone think that a game between Fiji and Samoa would sell out Eden Park and turn swathes of Auckland into Suva and Apia as happened at the last World Cup.

“I think what we have now,” says Fatialofa, “is a situation a bit like in the USA, where rugby is like basketball for kids in the ghetto. It is a legitimate career for the Pacific Island boys and more and more are becoming professional players.”

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THE ANAMOLOY of the Pasifika uprising is that the actual island nations themselves haven’t consistently delivered results that reflect their respective talent bases. 

There have been memorable wins and good campaigns for Samoa, Tonga and Fiji in the last 20 or so years, but really, they have wallowed in the lower reaches. For every win or near win, there has been a major pounding - something that has much to do with the fact they have seen so many of their best players swiped by others. 

The money and prestige on offer elsewhere – with the All Blacks, the Wallabies and now England and Wales, has made it an easy enough decision for most Islanders to throw their lot in with someone else. 

These tiny islands have made such a major contribution to world rugby and yet it is other nations who are benefiting most. The talent produced in the South Pacific is stripped and shipped and because it has been diversified rather than clustered, it makes full appreciation of the global Pasifika influence a little hard.

But could anyone disagree that predominantly, almost exclusively in fact, that in the last 25 years or so, it has been players with a Pacific Island influence who have been the most fascinating and exciting – starting with Michael Jones in 1987. He was followed by Inga Tuigimala, Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu, Jerry Collins, Joe Rokocoko, Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill Williams. 

What, after all, would the All Blacks have achieved these last 20 years without the contribution of Polynesian and Melanesian athletes? The winning ratio has climbed to 80 per cent since 1992 – compared with an overall ratio of 75 per cent. All sorts of theories could be put forward to explain that, but none would be more valid than the influx of players with a Pacific Island background. 

Since Jones freakishly burst onto the scene in 1987 and re-wrote the expectations for openside flankers, there has been a steady increase in the number of Polynesian players in the top reaches of the New Zealand game. The statistics show that when Super Rugby began in 1996, there were 21 Polynesian or Melanesian players contracted to New Zealand teams. This year there are 42 – almost one third of the playing base and yet, according to the last census, only six per cent of the population are Pacific Islanders. The numeric influence is disproportionately high and that’s the part of the story that carries the most interest. Why is that? Why has this cluster of microscopic dots in the middle of the Pacific Ocean been able to produce so much from so little?

The combined populations of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Nuie and the Cook Islands doesn’t get close to one million. Even when the ex-pat populations of New Zealand and Australia are factored in, the number of people with a Pacific Island heritage doesn’t reach two million. Not even close – and yet the list of world class players to have come from the Islands is seemingly never-ending. 

Probably, the starting place for the Pacific uprising was the 1991 World Cup. Western Samoa left everyone, particularly the northern hemisphere, in a near state of shock with their level of physicality and aggression. Tackling had been a relatively passive business up until then and suddenly the Samoans had shifted the parameters: men such as Apollo Perelini and Brian Lima were destructive, explosive defenders who launched into the contact and hit in the mid-riff. 

It was breathtaking, combative in a way no one had seen and when it was relentless, the way it was in that campaign, it became seriously effective.

It was in beating Wales 16-13 at the Cardiff Arms Park that Samoa heralded the arrival of a new type of rugby: paved the way for the inclusion of a new type of athlete. “We knew the Samoans would be very physical,” Welsh first-five Mark Ring would say many years later. “I was putting the ball out to our centres with time to spread it wide but they had limited vision and they just kept getting smashed by the likes of Frank Bunce. 

“The other thing was the Samoans’ competitiveness. Our scrum dominated them, but in the loose they were formidable. They were phenomenal rugby players in that sense.”

No one knew it at the time, but 1991 was the beginning of the end for amateurism. The type of rugby Samoa played – high impact, high tempo, high skills – was the type of rugby that held serious interest to broadcast moguls. The game was heading towards professionalism, there was already an element of farce about it with shoe-boxes of cash being stuffed in lockers and players holding token jobs. But there is no question that the drive to fully-fledged professionalism accelerated after 1991 and much of that was down to the vision of what the game could look like if played with explosive athletes and explosive mind-sets.

The 1991 Samoa team inspired players everywhere, especially young Polynesian men living in New Zealand, men such as Keven Mealamu. “I just remember the style of rugby they played – it was Pacific-style obviously and it really stood out at that time. I remember international rugby was quite different back then and the way they played was quite inspiring. That was about the time I was starting to play so it was just amazing watching Samoa play.

“Yes I did [want to play for them]- especially as I am from the same heritage. It was inspiring for me and my brother and I think that team that played then, there were quite a few players we looked up to and every now and again I still like to watch a few of those games on the Rugby Channel.”

Change began to be constant after 1991. New Zealand in particular woke up to the genetic mix in its midst. Pat Lam, Frank Bunce and Stephen Bachop, who played for Samoa in 1991, were all picked by the All Blacks at a time when playing for two nations was possible. Olo Brown and Alama Ieremia became important players for the All Blacks and then of course there was Lomu – the man who to this day remains the best-known rugby player on the planet. 

By the late 1990s, most young men who were dual qualified to play for both New Zealand and a Pacific Island nation didn’t necessarily give the issue much thought. In most cases the All Blacks were always the bigger pull: they played the same sort of rugby as Samoa, fielded growing numbers of Pasifika athletes and they paid infinitely better. 

“When I was at primary school, I always wanted to play for Samoa,” says Ma’a Nonu. “I had a strong background. Samoa was a priority – I watched the All Blacks – but I felt drawn to Samoa. That all started to slowly change when I went to college. 

“I saw a lot of Polynesians playing for New Zealand – a lot of guys playing for the Blues and the Hurricanes. There were all these Polynesians playing and that had an impact.”

Here we are now in 2013 and it’s apparent Wales, England and France would be keen to do the same – create an explosive style of rugby that appeals to Pacific Island players. All the serious candidates at the next tournament are going to be looking to build their Polynesian armoury. England love what they get from Vunipola and Tuilagi; Wales know they have gold in Faletau and if both nations can get their hands on more, they will. The French, who have a colonial past in the Pacific, are also interested in diversifying the ethnic mix of their squad and capped Fijian-born Noa Nakaitaci on their recent tour of New Zealand.

By 2015 the Pacific influence in world rugby will be at unprecedented levels. The stars of the All Blacks, Australia even England and Wales will have a Polynesian link. The rugby will be fast, furious and brutal: high impact and high skilled- exactly like the Samoan game-plan in 1991. 

And when it comes down to it, the team that finally emerges as champions may be the one whose Pacific influence was the most pronounced. 

Secret Weapons

The All Blacks have three young men with strong Pacific heritage who are possibly going to be huge superstars at the next World Cup. 

Steven Luatua

Age: 22

Height: 1.94m

Weight: 110kg

Position: Blindside

Steven Lutua will no doubt get sick of hearing how he could be the next Jerome Kaino. Comparisons in this business are inevitable – especially when there are such obvious similarities. Luatua is a raw athlete, tough, rangy, gifted and committed. He has a better work-rate than Kaino at the same age but maybe not the same propensity to make the explosive tackles. But everyone feels that imposing, destructive side of Luatua’s game will grow, that he has it in him and just like Kaino, it may take a little time to fully mature.

By 2015, Luatua could be a rare package of athleticism, work-rate, skill and nastiness. He loves the physical contest. “To be honest that is how I like to play,” he says. “I think I prefer playing the South Africans – they like to make it confrontational, to bully you on the field. I like testing myself. It is definitely one of the things I have been working on. I want to improve my leg drive so I can become more dominant in the tackle. If I can do that, then I can push on.”

Expect him to take a hold of that All Black No 6 jersey over the next 18 months and reach the World Cup as a bruising point of difference.

Julian Savea

Age: 23

Height: 1.92m

Weight: 104kg

Position: Wing

 A hat-trick on debut pretty much summed up what Julian Savea is all about – a high impact performer who is almost impossible to stop in full flight. He grew in confidence and authority last year and has been sensational for the Hurricanes in 2013 – playing like he’s suddenly realised he’s a world class operator. 

His power is incredible. His micro skills are impressive as his ability under the high ball. He makes smart decisions on defence and comes off his wing looking for work. He can beat any player one-on-one and his top end speed is up there with the best wings. 

By 2015, Savea will be deadly – a man no one will enjoy playing against as he should be the perfect mix of power, youth, speed, experience and skill. 

Ben Tameifuna

Age: 22

Weight: 139kg

Height: 1.90m

Position: Prop/Hooker

Ben Tameifuna has a long way to go before he can fulfil his potential. He needs to lose at least 10kg and improve his aerobic fitness by at least 30 per cent. The All Blacks have told him – get fit and you are in the team.

That’s because he’s a stunning prospect if he get himself about the prospect. He is a destructive scrummager – and not just because of his weight. Technically he’s good. He’s strong, he’s agile and he’s tough.

He can carry the ball well and has good handling skills. He can beat defenders and he can drive through tackles. He can also throw the ball into lineouts and is a genuine prospect to play hooker in a test.

It’s his potential versatility that really excites – imagine a tight-head who can cover hooker: that opens up possibilities of what the All Blacks can do on their bench. His scrummaging opens up possibilities of the All Blacks being able to intimidate and destroy sides in the set-piece.

Pacific Stars Around the World

Australia

Totafu Poloto-Nau – The bruising Waratahs hooker is one of the most ferocious ball carriers in world rugby. He can also tackle like he really means it and has become a vital part of the Wallabies weaponry.

Sitaleki Timani -  A huge door of a man, the 2.03m, 120kg Tongan-born Timani has made a huge difference to the Wallaby pack. He gives the scrum grunt, their defence edge and their collisions genuine impact.

Sekope Kepu – The Kiwi-raised Tongan was educated at the famous Welsey College and played for the New Zealand Under 21 side before he decided to return to the country of his birth – Australia. The Wallabies love his work at prop as they believe he is one of the few who can handle himself at the set-piece.

Saia Faingaa – A durable and engaging hooker, Saia Faingaa has been a Wallaby regular for the better of six seasons and never failed to give of his best.

Joe Tomane – New Zealand-born, Australian-raised and with Samoan heritage, Joe Tomane has already excelled at league and is now a rising star in the Wallabies. He’s a big wing, powerful on the charge and capable of beating anyone one-on-one.

Christian Leali’ifano – A tidy operator at first-five or second-five. Christian Leali’ifano has steadily impressed at the Brumbies in 2013 where his measured game has blossomed under coach Jake White.

Wycliff Palu – The Wallabies have been at their best in recent years when Wycliff Palu has been at his best. He’s a danger when he gets going from the base – one of the biggest and most physical No 8s in the world game.

Israel Folou – Should Israel Folou stay with rugby union, the fullback-cum-wing could be one of the major stars of the 2015 World Cup. A brilliant NRL player, Folou has size, speed, skill and more than X-Factor than any man should.

England

Manu Tuilagi – The rising star of English rugby was born and raised in Samoa and displays all the best aspects of Pacific rugby. He’s powerful, fast, aware and willing to back himself. Has he ever kicked the ball?

Mako Vunipola – This giant prop has finally got himself fit and left the England coaches speechless with his raw power and desire to impose himself. Is being tipped, now that he’s a British Lion, to be the cornerstone of England’s pack for the next decade.

France

Noa Nakataici – Played for the Fijian Under 20 side and was recruited out of the Clermont Academy on the Islands, the lively wing is fancied to make an impression over the next two years.

Noumean 

Sebastien Vahaamahina – At 2.03m and 126 kg, this young lock simply can’t be missed. He’s given the French pack a traditional flavoured grunt but with a Pacific flavoured trimming which is mobility and ball handling.

Romain Taofifenua – Get out his way when he’s on the charge. That’s the advice everyone has when playing against this giant lock who loves taking the ball up the guts.

Wales

Toby Faletau – The Tongan-born No 8 has given Wales an explosive element they were missing. Faletau drives over the gainline, plays close to his flankers and has great hands.

Japan

Sione Talikavili Vatuvei – The Tongan-born loose forward played all three games for Japan at the World Cup. His physicality and willingness to carry the ball were noticeable features.

Alisi Tupuailai – The 31-year-old Samoan was another to make a favourable impression at the World Cup. His defence was relentless and read the game effortlessly in the midfield.

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