New Zealand eyes Super Rugby diplomacy in Pacific

Wellington (AFP) –


The New Zealand government revealed Tuesday it has examined the possibility of setting up a Pacific islands Super Rugby team, reportedly to help offset China's rising influence in the region.

The team would be known as "Pacific Force" and feature a combination of players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, New Zealand's TV3 reported.

It said the Suva-based side would play home matches in all three countries as well as Auckland and Sydney, which have large Pacific populations.

"Part of the plan is that rugby can be a diplomatic force to counter China's influence in the Pacific," the report said.

It added: "The idea is that rugby will help keep hearts and minds away from China, which is saturating the region with money to obtain influence."

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters earlier this year expressed "strategic anxiety" over the Pacific -- diplomatic code for Beijing's rising influence among island nations.

Australia's Lowy Institute estimates China provided US$1.78 billion in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific nations between 2006-16.

New Zealand and its Pacific neighbours share a passion for rugby and the islands have long been a hotbed of player talent.

Rugby fans have floated the idea of a combined Pacific team for years but it has always floundered on economic grounds.

The remote islands lack the economic base to attract major sponsors, facilities are poor and the rugby unions of all three nations have faced major governance issues in recent years.

In the meantime, their best players have left for New Zealand, Australia and Europe.

The New Zealand Rugby Players' Association said the government had simply carried out a feasibility study into such a team, which reportedly cost NZ$80,000 ($55,000).

NZRPA chief Rob Nichol said Wellington was not actually looking at funding the team itself, which would cost many millions in salaries, accommodation and travel.

"(The study) raised as many questions as it answered... to suggest plans are afoot and it's all going to happen is a bit premature," he told Radio Sport.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed her government had carried out the study, although she was unaware of it until the media reports.

Ardern appeared to baulk at the prospect of New Zealand using its aid budget to fund a commercial rugby enterprise in the Pacific.

"It certainly wouldn't be something, right off the bat, that I would have thought would fulfil our criteria," she told Newshub.

Super Rugby administrator SANZAAR is currently examining how the competition will be structured from 2021 to 2030.

It has led to speculation ranging from expansion into North America to a reduction in teams if South African sides decide to play elsewhere.

An expansion to 18 teams was scrapped this season after complaints it made the competition unwieldy and spread player talent too thinly.