A major plan has been revealed to tackle the issue of rugby union talent drain from the Pacific Islands through forming a Super Rugby franchise in Fiji.
UK newspaper The Telegraph said the project has already gained over £20m (€22.5m/$24.8m) in financial backing, with more than four global companies and two leading kit manufacturers pledging to fund the proposal to create “the best club side in world rugby” on the island.
The new team, which could be operational by 2018, would be based in a new 20,000-seat stadium included in plans to develop the Port Denarau Marina, close to the island’s airport in Nadi. Ben Ryan, the Englishman who led Fiji to its historic first Olympic gold medal with victory in the inaugural men’s rugby sevens competition at Rio 2016, claims the move would be a “world game changer”. Some 19 per cent of professional players worldwide are Pacific Islanders or of Pacific Islands descent.
He told The Telegraph: “It is not pie in the sky. Pick a world XV from the players that are playing outside Fiji and Samoa in the other international teams and you would get a team that is there or thereabouts. We have got some of the biggest companies in the world backing this. They have ties with the Pacific Islands. I have had conversations and we have got money on the table to be able to pay for all of this. We will have more money behind the team than any other Super Rugby franchise.
“We could make them the best club side in the world. Imagine the talent that we have got in France? They would all be on the first flight back.”
Super Rugby, which currently includes franchises from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, has yet to endorse the plan but Ryan said he has put the project to World Rugby. “No one has ever gone to Super Rugby and said ‘we would like a franchise in the islands’ and we have got more money than any other franchise in Super Rugby and we can guarantee that,” he said.
“Plus, we can build a new stadium that is a 10-minute drive from Nadi airport and surrounded by 20 five-star hotels. Also, 10 of the Super Rugby teams would be within a four-hour flight of the stadium.”
Commenting on the plan, Bill Beaumont, chairman of the sport’s world governing body, said: “It’s ground-breaking potentially as it would put an end in theory to players leaving.”
However, Fiji Rugby Union chief executive John O'Connor told the Fiji Village news website that the union is not party to the negotiations and Ryan is not acting on the FRU's behalf. O'Connor said the FRU has its own plans for a stadium which it has already lodged with World Rugby.
It was revealed last month that a Fiji-based team will enter Australia’s National Rugby Championship (NRC) in 2017 through a World Rugby-backed initiative. The NRC is a third-tier competition that launched in 2014 in an effort to boost the development of domestic rugby union in Australia.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU), FRU and World Rugby joined forces in the new initiative in a bid to tackle the long-running issue of talent drain from Fiji to wealthier rugby-playing nations.