The Manu Samoa rugby coach says more clarity is needed around the makeup of the inaugural Moana Pasifika Super Rugby team and how many players will be available for the national sides in Samoa and Tonga.
New Zealand Rugby confirmed last month that two Pacific Island franchises have been awarded a conditional licence to join an expanded competition from next year.
Moana Pasifika general manager Kevin Senio told Sky Sport recently that 80% of their playing roster would be already capped by Samoa or Tonga or on that pathway.
Manu Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua said he shared the concerns of some in the region that players with dual eligibility could still end up playing for the All Blacks or Australia.
“It’s really important that it remains specifically Pacific…but there is genuine concern around it’s easy for players to say they’re going to play for Samoa, they’re going to play for Tonga and still end up in the black jersey, which kind of goes against everything this team should be standing for.”
The former Highlanders and London Irish midfielder, 41, said the Samoa Rugby Union has had “sporadic” dialogue with the Moana Pasifika steering committee so far but there were still a lot of conversations to be had.
“It’s important that we work together as a Union with Moana Pasifika around what the makeup of their team is going to look like and making sure that we’re aligned with the players that want to become available for the Pacific Islands but also making sure that it’s the right players for Moana Pasifika,” he said.
The purpose of Moana Pasifika is to serve and strengthen rugby in Samoa and Tonga, Mapusua said, not to be a sixth New Zealand franchise.
“Once we get a bit more clarity on what the pathway’s going to look like with the Pacific Unions and pathways for players and coaches and development pathways for academy-type players I think we will be in a much better position…and I do want to be able to talk to the players about being eligible for Samoa and presenting them with an opportunity to play for Moana Pasifika as well.”
RNZ Pacific understands a maximum of three players in the Moana Pasifika squad would be classed as ‘All Blacks eligible’. This could include current All Blacks or players with dual heritage who have are still available to represent New Zealand at international level, such as Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava, Crusaders prop George Bower or Chiefs number eight Pita Gus Sowakula.
Former All Blacks who returned from overseas to represent their Polynesian heritage would be treated differently, as they tended to be in the final stages of their career and would not tend to be in the frame for All Blacks selection.
Other players who are eligible for more than one country, such as Tonga and Australia, would be required to ‘commit’ their international allegiance to Samoa or Tonga, and would be considered as ‘captured’ by that nation.
Seilala Mapusua supported the inclusion of current or former All Blacks provided they add value to the Moana Pasifika squad and share their knowledge with the other players around them.
But it can’t be an open call for any players of Pasifika heritage, he said, who simply want to come back to play in New Zealand.
“I’m thinking about players of Pacific Island heritage who have a genuine passion to help take the Pacific Islands forward. At the time that we balance that with developing players who will be actually wearing the jersey of the Pacific Island nations.”
After years of being neglected by the game’s major powerbrokers, Mapusua believed rugby in the Pacific Islands was finally getting some long overdue support.
Although a strong dose of pessimism still remained.
“Because of the way it’s been for so long we’re always going to be skeptical…but it does feel like there’s more progress now than just the usual lip-service that is usually paid,” he said.
“It does make me feel a little bit excited but at the same time we’re kind of used to being disappointed so I’m not going to hold my breath too much (but) staying as positive as can be.”
The former Manu Samoa midfielder said Moana Pasifika patron Tuifa’asisina Sir Bryan Williams and former New Zealand Rugby Board member Laáuli Sir Michael Jones, who are both former Manu Samoa coaches, have the best interests of Pacific Island rugby at heart.
“I know where their passions lie and I know how much this means to them as pioneers of Pacific Island rugby players in New Zealand,” he said.
“When people like Sir ‘Bee Gee’ and Laáuli Sir Michael are involved it gives me hope and both men are very high integrity and very passionate about Samoan and Pacific Island rugby.
“We’re putting our faith in them and we’re hopeful that they and the steering committee and the whole organisation of Moana Pasifika can work with the Pacific Island unions, in terms of forming what this partnership is going to look like, as they are our team in Super.”