It's Time for a Solution for the Pacific Island Nations
Going into the World Cup you might expect some of the most inexperienced sides to be the lowest ranked nations or rookies of the tournament. Maybe a team such as Chile? You wouldn't expect the lowest ranked side making their tournament debut to be particualrly cohesive. Their squad has an average of 17.4 caps per player. How about a side like Namibia, the second lowest ranked team? They are forever being smashed at World Cups with a 22 losing streak at the competition and are making up the numbers from Africa. Well they have 16.4 caps per player. What about Europe's second division, surely they must be low on game time? Georgia, Portugal and Romania have 35.6, 26.2 and 20.6 caps per player respectively.
Now, where would you expect the nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to rank in the list of experience? These are islands which provide some of the greatest players in rugby. Take Levani Botia for Fiji. The hybrid flanker/centre has just won back-to-back European titles with La Rochelle. Well Botia alone has just 23 international caps at the age of 34. That is below the average for Portuguese players and significantly below Georgia's average. But Botia is one of the best players in the world we hear you say. Perhaps he is just a late developer? Unfortunately Botia is the fourth most capped player in the Fijian side. The three Pacific Island nations have the three lowest capped squads at the World Cup. If you double Fiji and Samoa, they only just scrape past Chile and Namibia:
The fact that these great rugby playing nations have such little game time is a travesty for the sport. There have been encouraging signs at a club level with the emergence of the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby last year. This has bolstered their respective national sides. The success of the Drua was clear to see following Fiji's slaying of England at Twickenham. That Fijian starting XV consisted of six Drua players. However, this progress now needs to arrive on the international scene.
The Fijians, Samoans and Tongans need to be given equal game time. Since the beginning of 2022, Fiji have only played 10 games compared to 21 for England. If you extend that back to 2019 then the gap widens to 16 for Fiji and 40 for England, albeit COVID did play a role. There is the Pacific Nations Cup for the islanders, but that is only three games in the summer. In contrast, the other Southern Hemisphere sides will play eight or nine games over the summer. Then in the autumn, if the Islanders are lucky they may have one or two games against Northern Hemisphere opponents, but that is not always guaranteed. As for Six Nations and Rugby Championship nations touring Fiji, Samoa and Tonga? You can pretty much forget it. Scotland and Italy both visited Fiji in 2017 and Wales visitied Samoa in the same year. When Fiji played the All Blacks in 2021, both matches were played in New Zealand. Wales also played their game against Tonga in 2017 at Eden Park in New Zealand.
This weekend Fiji go up against Wales in Bordeaux. At the last World Cup in France in 2007, the Fijians defeated Wales in their final pool game to send the Fijians through to the quarter finals. This was the last time Fiji made the knockouts. Sunday is the perfect opportunity for Fiji to lay down a marker to show why they should be included amongst rugby's most powerful teams. Samoa showed what they could do against Ireland during the warm ups with impressive performances from Theo McFarland, Fritz Lee and Jordan Taufua. They'll now be targeting wins over Japan and hopefully England and Argentina. For the islands to progress they need regular game time in the summer and autumn going forward. A minimum of at least eight games per year is not unreasonable for Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. If the island nations needed a time to lay down a marker to make their case, there is no time better than this World Cup.