Family fortunes: the Pacific ties linking rugby's haves and have-nots

Tokyo (AFP) –


England forward Billy Vunipola's father represented Tonga, Joe Cokanasiga's cousin plays for Fiji and Australian prop Allan Alaalatoa's brother turns out for Samoa.

At the Rugby World Cup, an intricate web of Pacific family ties links Tier One and Tier Two nations and underlines how the islands' influence now permeates the international game.

The stark difference for these relatives is that those playing for the top nations are marching into the quarter-finals, while the Pacific teams of their birth are all going home.

For the third straight World Cup, and the fifth in the last six editions, none of the Pacific nations has reached the quarter-finals, with Fiji, Tonga and Samoa all out at the pool stage.

Meanwhile, New Zealand and Australia -- both common destinations for families relocating from Pacific countries -- as well as England, France and Japan all have players with Pacific heritage.

Tongan-raised Vunipola has described how he and brother Mako, an England prop forward, watched their father and uncle play for Tonga against the English at the 1999 World Cup.

Before the two countries' Pool C clash, Billy Vunipola said he still felt Tongan, prompting Tonga coach Toufai Kefu to quip: "Well he should be playing for us then."

All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams is a cousin of Tim Nanai-Williams, who plays fullback for Samoa and is at his second World Cup.

When Tevita Kuridrani was named man of the match after Australia's win over Uruguay, he was quick to send a message of thanks to his home village in Fiji.

Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi must have had mixed feelings during Australia's Pool D win over Fiji, when they became the first Fijian-born players to score tries against the country of their birth.

"It was a good feeling, although obviously a lot of people back home would have been cheering for Fiji," Koroibete said.

France also have a Fijian connection, with Alivereti Raka starring on the wing alongside fellow Fiji native Virimi Vakatawa at outside centre.

"For me, I'm happy playing next to another Fijian. We talk a lot so it's easy for us because we talk the same language," said Raka.

- Brawn drain -

The list goes on. The elder brother of Fiji's Campese Ma'afu played for Australia at the 2011 World Cup, while his younger brother has three caps with Tonga.

England wing Cokanasiga, who left Fiji as a toddler, has been receiving messages from the family village during his campaign with England.

"Dad always reminds Joe that when he represents England, he is also a Fijian and not to forget his roots," his brother Phil told the BBC.

Lobby group Pacific Rugby Players Welfare estimates about 20 percent of all professional players come from islander backgrounds.

The Pacific nations' geographical isolation, lack of financial resources and poor governance tempt players to move to rich clubs abroad, where they are eventually able to represent their adopted country through residency rules.

The brawn drain has become a severe irritant for the Pacific nations, which continue to struggle on the international stage while their most talented players ply their trade elsewhere.

Fiji's appearance in the 2007 quarter-finals was the only time a Pacific nation has made it to the World Cup knockout stages since Western Samoa in 1995.

After losses to England, France and Argentina in Pool C, Kefu said his team needed more opportunities to play together if they were to beat Tier One nations.

"We need more games which will bring more quality time together," he said, after Tonga's 21-23 defeat to France.

"We also have a list of players that for some reason or another are not here. So those are the main things."

When asked how he rated France's Raka and Vakatawa, Kefu said: "He (Raka) was outstanding.

"Both Fijians were a threat."