Sat, Jul 03, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Pacific Islanders take on Australia in their debut on international rugby stage

REUTERS , SYDNEY

A dream that has been 80 years in the making finally comes true this weekend when the Pacific Islanders unite for their first rugby international.

Fiji, Samoa and Tonga's best will put aside their traditional rivalries to form a combined team to play a series of matches against the southern hemisphere's rugby superpowers.

Their first Test will be against an in-form Australia in Adelaide today, followed by matches against New Zealand and South Africa.

Assistant coach Michael Jones, a World Cup winner with New Zealand in 1987, said the team had the potential to beat any of the world's established powers.

"I've always maintained that for any given 80 minutes, if you throw 15 Pacific Islanders on the field and four corners of grass, anything can happen," Jones said.

"That's always been the dream, we've always believed that once you did bring the best of the Samoans, the Fijians and the Tongans together, potentially it has the ability to be something very, very special."

The match promises to be a high-scoring spectacular but there is far more at stake for the Pacific Islanders than just providing entertainment.

Charlie Charters, chief executive of the Pacific Islanders Rugby Alliance, said the tour presented a rare chance for the region to help protect its future.

Despite being one of the great nurseries of world rugby, the South Pacific struggles to retain its best players because it cannot match the huge sums on offer in other parts of the world.

New Zealand and Australia have a long history of poaching players from the region while English and French clubs banned their Pacific imports from playing at last year's World Cup.

The International Rugby Board agreed earlier this year to allow the Pacific nations to form a combined team as a way of raising revenue.

While the Pacific Islands will continue to play as separate countries at the World Cup, Charters hoped a combined team could be included in an expanded Super 12.

"We are working on a proposal to create a fully funded Islanders concept that could be included in the Super rugby competition without having to draw on any of the television revenue," Charters said.

"I think we've already disproved a lot of the nay-sayers who looked at Fiji, Samoa and Tonga and frankly believed we couldn't co-operate together.

"So hopefully we can do well in these tests and, going forward, ultimately give our players a career pathway which doesn't necessarily involve them moving overseas."

The Islanders showed what they were capable of by easily winning their two lead-up matches against Australian Super 12 teams Queensland (48-29) and New South Wales (68-21) but there are already signs the goodwill is about to end.

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