Controversial former Wallaby Israel Folau’s Pacific Nations Cup debut at the weekend, along with four former All Blacks, will provide a gilt-edged opportunity to raise the profile of the game in the region, the players’ association chief told AFP on Wednesday.
Flying wing Folau played 73 Tests for Australia before being sacked in 2019 for posting homophobic messages on his social media account.
He is expected to be named in Tonga’s team for Saturday’s opening Pacific Nations Cup Test against Fiji in Suva, alongside ex-New Zealand backs Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa.
Two others switching are Tonga scrum-half Augustine Pulu and Fiji centre Seta Tamanivalu, who both played a handful of Tests for the All Blacks.
They have all taken advantage of new World Rugby eligibility rules which allow players to represent a country where they have a birthright, providing they haven’t played Test rugby for three years.
Pacific Rugby Players Association co-founder and chief executive Hale T-Pole described the players who have switched allegiance as “pioneering” for the game in the cash-starved Pacific islands and predicted more would follow.
T-Pole told AFP that the veteran quintet, who are all in their thirties, were just the tip of the iceberg and several more former Test stars would become available for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa ahead of the November international window.
More will be eligible in time for next year’s World Cup in France but he said much would hinge on how the teams perform on and off the pitch during the Pacific Nations Cup, which takes place over the next three weekends and also features an Australia A team.
T-Pole said the professionalism of the Pacific Nations would be a key factor in convincing others with overseas club contracts to commit to playing Test rugby
“I’m not saying we have to roll out the red carpet, but the three unions have got to do everything right,” he said.
“It all comes down to the experience that these fellas like Charles and Malakai have, and what they then say and do.
“If they go back with a good message of their experience in the environment, then a lot more will put their hand up and won’t sit around watching TV at the next international window.”
‘My country, my heart’
Fekitoa, raised as one of 14 children on the tiny island of Ha’apai, tweeted this week of his thrill at joining his new team-mates, four years after his last All Blacks Test.
“I am very proud to have been a part of the best team in the world but at the same time I want to contribute something great to Tonga, my country, my homeland and where my heart belongs,” he wrote.
“Life passes very fast and I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity. I want to be able to inspire others, the way I was as a child.”
World Rugby has long been accused of ignoring the financially-poor but athletic-rich Pacific islands, where countless players boasting natural skill and power must move overseas to pursue professional careers.
T-Pole says governance of the game in the three biggest Pacific unions of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa is improving and the introduction this year of Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika into Super Rugby was an important change.
“World Rugby has always listened. It was more about us getting our act together with our governance,” he said.
“You can’t just turn around and say ‘we want this and this’ when, in house, everything is not aligned.
“We were struggling commercially with fans and sponsorship but it’s looking brighter for Pacific rugby. There’s a lot of good people out there who want this to work for us.”