Whether it was an oversight or a deliberate snub, the decision to not include a Pacific Island team when Super Rugby launched in 1996 is now universally accepted as a giant mistake.
The consequences of non-inclusion have been felt hard in the Island nations of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. All three have spent the last 25 years close to insolvency, scraping, borrowing, and begging for cash just to pay for kit and accommodation.
All three have felt financial hardship in a way few other countries have. They have operated on next to nothing as they were left on the starting grid when the game went professional.
The curious thing is that all three Island nations had entered the race, were on the line with everyone else, and had every reason to believe they would hear the gun. Why wouldn't they as all three had been part of the amateur Super 10, which was the pre-cursor to the professional Super 12.
Super 10, which ran from 1993 to 1995, included the four top-ranked provincial teams from New Zealand, New South Wales, and Queensland, the three top-ranked South African provinces and the winner of the Pacific Nations Cup played between Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa as they were then.
The make-up worked. It made sense and fan interest was high. So when Samoa reached the quarter-final of the 1995 World Cup, they fully expected to be part of the negotiations to create a professional version of Super Rugby.
“Why wouldn't we be included?,” asks Samoa's coach from that time, the legendary All Black Bryan Williams. “We had had good results since 1991 and had made the quarter-finals at both the 1991 World Cup and 1995. We had also shown we could compete against the best New Zealand, Australian, and South African provinces.
“I was a strong advocate for inclusion and we expected to be included.”
It was the Springboks who knocked out the Samoans in 1995 and so conscious was the latter about not being seen to rock the establishment, they decided to not complain that some of their players were racially abused and bitten during the defeat.
It was a deliberate attempt to endear themselves to the elite, but it failed to register. Samoa and the other Island nations were never included in the Super Rugby discussions and Williams says he only became aware of this when the public announcement was made revealing the new competition and its US$555million broadcast deal.
“It was a real kick in the guts,” he says. “That's how we found out and I was personally wounded. Supposedly it was because they felt that the Samoan Rugby Union couldn't generate enough money to be included.”
Without a place in Super Rugby, be it through one composite team or three individual spots, Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga sat on the sidelines and watched everyone else get rich.
And as the money poured into New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa as well as Europe, the Island nations could never catch up.
The whole system worked against the Islands – every year they didn't have a place in Super Rugby compounded their problems, not the least of which was that without regular exposure to Super Rugby, they couldn't justify a place in the Tri-Nations.
Their players weren't conditioned to the speed and intensity of Southern Hemisphere rugby and so they were deemed too high a risk to be involved in Sanzar's showpiece international event.
And of course, all the time they were locked out, they had no access to revenue, no access to test matches and therefore the gap between them and everyone else continued to grow.
The rich got richer and the Islands got poorer and making it worse was the obvious cynicism driving the decision to keep the Islands away from rugby's top table.
Many of the established nations, particularly the Celts, feared for their own position if the three island nations were given access to the financial support and regular football that they needed to fulfill their potential.
The respective talent pools of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji are much deeper than those of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. The Celts effectively rely on their migrant heritage to populate their teams – all three constantly scouring the globe for Kiwis, Australians, and South Africans whose family line began in the North.
For much of the early professional period, the Celts were clinging to their place at the table and they were adamant they didn't want a tidal wave from the South Seas to sweep them into obscurity.
By bloc voting, those three nations were able to stop any legislative changes being made that would help the Pacific Islands.
The most notable were the continued attempts by New Zealand to sponsor a change in the eligibility laws which would enable players to stand down after a career with a Tier One nation and then become available for a Tier Two side.
It was a way to allow the many Pacific Island-qualified All Blacks and Wallabies to take their experience and skills to Fiji, Tonga, or Samoa after they were no longer wanted by their Tier One choice.
Each and every attempt, though, was voted down, leading New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew to say in 2009 after another failed attempt: “The optimists thought we might get it through. The reality is there is a group of northern unions that is very nervous about strengthening the island nations.”
Sanzar was arguably the greater villain in all this, though, as it was within their power to open the Super Rugby door but they never did.
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