Russell Marshall’s Column

Russell Marshall
Russell Marshall

NZ rugby neglect hits Pacific Island nations

 By Russell Marshall

All Black Zac Guilford was in the news again last week. Michael Field in the Sunday Star Times suggested he would be in trouble with the NZ Rugby Union for comments he made about what he regarded as NZRU’s neglect of rugby in the rugby-playing Pacific Islands.

He also suggested that rugby planning is driven too much by money, and that as a consequence there is too much top level rugby being played now.

Little coverage for Guildford

As it turns out there seems to have been little coverage of Guilford’s comments, let alone criticism.

I think Zac is right. There is arguably too much high level rugby played these days, surely one of the reasons why the numbers attending Super matches have fallen away.

His other point, suggesting inadequate support for rugby in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, is also well made.  In my view it is a great pity that no real effort has ever been made by the NZ Rugby leadership to have a Pacific team in the competition.

By contrast Australia, with a relatively small rugby community, has gone from three teams to five, boosting its pool by bring in players from elsewhere.  Financial profit from TV rights and large venues is what counts.

Rugby a beneficiary from immigration

Over the last half century Nerw Zealand has been enriched by the large number of Samoan and other immigrants who have settled here, and rugby has been a major beneficiary of that.

Despite that, as the most recent Rugby World Cup and the Seven tournaments show, Rugby is alive and well in Polynesia and its teams now quite often cause upsets, as Italy found a few days ago.

However, any prospect of the All Blacks playing in the Pacific is obviously very low on any priority list. Hong Kong and Japan are more likely to host our country’s major sports team, as that is where the money is.  Australia has apparently played more tests in the Pacific in recent times than we have.

A diplomatic aside

As an aside, I am not sure that our diplomatic commitment to the Pacific is as strong as it once was.

In past times most of the best and brightest of the young recruits to Foreign Affairs did a stint in the Pacific and some were later Heads of Mission there.  A consequence was sound advice to politicians, few of whom were otherwise familiar with the region.

A generation ago, NZ played a mostly valuable and constructive role in the Pacific and my conversations as Foreign Minister with counterparts were often marked by keen interest in the region.

The diplomats of that era served New Zealand better than we knew.