New Zealand have agreed to play a pre-World Cup 2015 Test match in Apia, Samoa. It will be the first time that the All Blacks have played a Test in the Pacific Islands in the professional era. But does New Zealand rugby, which has profited from Samoan-born players, owe Samoa this match?
The answer is that New Zealand should play the Pacific Island nations away anyway. If New Zealand are playing a Test against the USA in Chicago prior to their European tour this autumn, they can certainly play Samoa. But this is about respecting Samoa as a rugby nation, not the fulfilling of a charitable act.
New Zealand have benefitted from numerous high-quality players from the Pacific Islands. From Samoa in particular, they have valued the services of the likes of flanker Michael Jones, fellow back-rowers Pat Lam and Jerry Collins, and winger ‘Inga’ Tuigamala.
Less known, however, are the Kiwis who have represented Samoa. Stade Francais full-back Paul Williams, son of 38-cap All Black Bryan Williams is one, and Northampton’s scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i is another.
But whilst it is important to note that New Zealand-born players have represented Pacific Islands, these are not players the All Blacks miss, whereas they have gained world-class talent from Samoa.
New Zealand have a duty to play in Samoa. In the disparate world of rugby-playing nations, they are geographically proximate and efforts should be made to develop rugby around the globe.
But this duty is not as a result of Samoan-born players representing New Zealand. Whilst protection from poaching players once they have developed into stars should be provided, the International Rugby Board (IRB) and the rugby community cannot reverse trends in global migration.
A more worrying case is that of 5-cap Steffon Armitage, who, after an England exile because of his move to Toulon, may play for France in the 2015 World Cup in England. In this case, Armitage has already played for England and learnt his trade at London Irish. That would be poaching a player, and the IRB ought to step in.
Other top-tier nations should help grow the sport. For example, in 2013, England played against a CONSUR “South America XV” featuring players from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil prior to their two-match series in Argentina. Similarly, it is good for the sport that New Zealand are preparing for their 2014 European tour with an admittedly lucrative match against the USA.
Adding to the debate of integrating the Pacific Islands more into world rugby, today British and Irish Lions legend Brian O’Driscoll called on the iconic touring team to play a warm-up match there before the 2017 New Zealand series. The idea was well-received by the IRB’s Oceania General Manager William Glenwright, as per MSN Sports:
Rugby is so important to the fabric of the three Pacific Island nations and the strength of the brands of teams like the All Blacks, the Wallabies and the Lions is so strong that to have those countries touring the Pacific Islands sends a message that they matter, that they are an important part of world rugby - and they are.
But, as Matt Butler of The Independent writes: “The decision to play in the Samoan capital Apia has not been taken purely out of altruism. It will form a crucial part of New Zealand’s preparations for their World Cup defence”. In many respects, that is exactly how it should be.
It is astonishing to think that this will be the first time New Zealand will play a Test Match in Fiji, Samoa or Tonga in the professional era. It is long overdue, but it is a good step for the development of our great sport. This is important, but New Zealand do not owe Samoa a Test match out of charity: Samoa deserve it.