In the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies three tiny islands who rise above the waves – these islands are Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Tonga is the smallest island out of the three with a population of 107,000 people, this is followed by Samoa with 195,000 and then Fiji who dwarf the other islands with 890,000 people.
Despite being small in size the islands produce by far the most naturally gifted players in world rugby but due to lack of financial backing and poor organisation, they lose so many of these players without having any say in the matter.
“How good are they? Brilliant, individually they are the best rugby players I’ve ever seen” says Clive Woodward.
“They’ve got all the attributes”
Fiji are the most successful Pacific nation competing in every Rugby World Cup and reaching the quarters final on two occasions in 1987 and 2007. The Fijians have won five Pacific Nations Cups including four consecutive titles from 2014 to 2018.
Fiji play a loose and free-flowing brand of rugby focusing on playing the game with power, grace and speed, the Fijians love to throw the ball around and always look for an offload out of the tackle, their style and flair is perfect for the openness and freedom in sevens but they have struggled to translate this to the 15 a side game.
Rugby union is the national sport on the island with over 80,000 registered players although many of these players ply their trade overseas due to better playing contracts and improved salaries. The Fiji rugby union have struggled due to poor management and a lack of financial resources, in 2014 the situation was so bad they were to forced to sack their head coach Imone Mane and four other staff members.
In 2017 Fiji played against England in an Autumn international at Twickenham, it was widely reported that the English players would receive over 22,000 pounds for playing in the test match, while the Fijian players were only being paid 400 pounds.
Only seven players in Fiji’s current 32 man squad play their club rugby on the island compared to the seventeen that play rugby in the French Top 14, they also have players who compete in Australia, England, Scotland and Romania.
With such a lack of familiarity and cohesion between players it is amazing how they still manage to be somewhat competitive, in 2018 the Fijians reached their highest ever IRB ranking of ninth and they are currently ranked tenth in the world.
Fiji’s competitiveness on the field is down largely to their ability to produce unbelievable talented rugby players on a frequent basis, but so much of all talent is poached by big name clubs in Europe and Australia. Clermont Auvergne for example have a scouting network based on the island which the aim of recruiting these players into their academy, Clermont’s playing squad currently includes four Fijian internationals.
Fiji have produced some rugby greats such as Rupeni Caucaunibuca, Akapusi Qera, Isa Nacewa, Seru Rabeni, Waisale Serivi, Seru Rabeni and Sisa Koyamalibole to name a few.
Other rugby nations such as the New Zealand, England, Australia and France also benefit from Fiji’s seamingly endless talent pool.
Waisake Naholo, Joe Rokococo and Sitiveni Sivivatu have all successfully represented the All Blacks, for England Nathan Hughes and Semesa Rokodugnui, Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerivi both Fijian born are crucial players for the Wallabies and France have the likes of Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci representing Les Bleus.
Samoa have made 7 appearances at the Rugby World Cup with the first in 1991 this tournament was a success for the Samoans beating Wales and Argentina to reach the quarter-finals on the first time of asking. Four years later they matched the same feat overcoming the challenges of Italy and Argentina before going out to eventual winners South Africa losing 42-14.
History repeated itself in 1999 with a Samoan team led by Pat Lam and Va’aga Tuigamala upsetting hosts Wales 38-31 at the newly built Millennium Stadium and comfortably beating Japan 43-9 to the reach the quarter-final play offs. Despite losing 32-16 to Argentina they still managed to finish second in Pool D.
The Samoans played against Scotland at Murrayfield and the game proved to be a step too far for Samoa, they lost 35-20 to Scotland ending their chances of reaching a third consecutive quarter-final.
The 1999 Rugby World cup was the last time Samoa played in a quarter-final, since then the Samoans have struggled and haven’t qualified out of the group stages.
Samoa have also found the most success against tier- 1 nations recording victories over Wales, Ireland, Argentina, Australia and Italy. They are famous for their physical style of play and huge tackling, former Samoan captain Brian Lima was nicknamed “The Chiropractor” due to his bone shuddering tackles.
“Whenever you play Fiji, Tonga or Samoa you are going to be sore in the morning” recalls former Australia fly-half Matt Giteau.
The Samoans play rugby with a smile on their face and this laid back approach has made them so endearing to rugby fans around the world.
Some notable Samoan rugby players include Alesana Tuilagi, Semo Sititi, David Lemi, Census Johnson and Sailosi Tagicakibau.
Samoa rely on strength and power in defense and go all out in attack, the Samoans are always a dangerous side to play against (especially if your Welsh) but with the ever-growing financial might of professional rugby Samoa like their Fijian neighbours are being left behind.
The Samoan rugby union announced it was bankrupt in 2017 and this was blamed on poor financial mismanagement and inept organisation.
Tonga are the smallest island out the three and this reflects on how successful they have been on the rugby field. Tonga have only 5,000 registered players and many of these players play their rugby overseas just like their Samoan and Fijian neighbours.
The Tongan’s have competed in every world cup besides the 1991 tournament but they have never played in a quarter-final, despite this Tonga have managed to put in respectable displays in both 2007 and 2011.
To prepare for the 2007 tournament the Tongan’s had no training ground to practice on and instead used public parks where they were based in Manchester, they also had no nutritionist to speak of so the players relied KFC to feed themselves.
In the documentary ‘Pacific Warriors’ former Tonga flanker Hale T Pole recalled “losing count” of how many public parks the team trained in.
Tonga were placed in the group of death against South Africa, England, United States and Samoa, they managed to defeat the US and Samoan in their first two matches before falling just short against South Africa and England to finish third in Pool A.
In 2011 Tonga were placed in Pool A which included New Zealand, France, Canada and Japan. The Tongan’s lost 41-10 to New Zealand in the opening match of the tournament and faced Canada in-game two.
The match ended in defeat for Tonga once again and effectively destroyed their chances of qualifying for the quarter finals, they rebounded in-game three against the Japanese winning 31-18 and shocked France 19-14 in their final pool game to fiinish just two points behind the French.
Tonga play a similar brand of rugby to Samoa relying on power and strength to dominate their opposition, they have recorded multiple victories over the French in 1999 and 2011, Scotland in 2012 and Italy in 1999 and 2016. Despite this Tonga have strugged against the bigger nations in world rugby and their progress has seemed to have stagnated.
“How do we take the next step into our development, sure we can learn from the big guns, training, nutrition, professionlism, but for us it is more than that we have to understand and appreciate our own beautiful culture and celebrate it” says former Tonga Captain Epi Taione.
A Pacific island has never won the Rugby World cup and this won’t be changing anytime soon, which is a huge shame considering their huge amount of potential.
Pat Lam says “No Pacific Island team has won the world cup but there has been a lot of Pacific Islanders who have won the world cup. If every country started with 30 of their best players and were given exactly the same resources and every player was paid exactly the same, I’d put my money on Tonga, Samoa or the Fijians”
“They seem capable of doing every thing and it was up to me to keep up with them” recalls Johnny Wilkinson.
Epi Tauine continues “We will continue to lose out countrymen to bigger nations. One day maybe every nation will be 100% pacific islanders. But we have keep fighting and trying to get the recognition we deserve because the one thing we can rely on it ourselves. The next generation will always bring something special to the table. Whatever it says on their jersey a piece of their hearts will always be in the islands”
I would like to credit Rugbyworld, the Sydney Morning Herald, World rugby and antipodean0 for the articles and videos provided in this blog, all the relevant links are below.