OPINION: "It is about bloody time."
Those are the words a senior figure in New Zealand rugby said when I was investigating the plans to get a Pacific team into the Super Rugby competition.
I couldn't agree more.
Finally New Zealand Rugby (NZR) and the New Zealand Government are getting stuck in.
Never let us forget NZR had to be shamed into getting the All Blacks to play Samoa up in Apia not that long ago.
- Revealed: NZ Govt's secret plan to set up Pacific Islands Super Rugby team
- PM Jacinda Ardern cautious over Pacific Super Rugby bid
The change in attitude is welcome as NZR has all the resources and the power to help make this combined team happen - and so it should after pillaging the players all these years.
As for the Government - well, the New Zealand taxpayer spent $402 million on aid in the Pacific last year.
It costs $12 million a year to run a Super Rugby team.
Everyone knows one of the key reasons for aid is trying to head off the massive influence China is having.
It may be unconventional, but if the Government is looking for "bang for buck" then surely helping a pan-Islands rugby team is better than many of the other initiatives it funds. (For instance, the Government spent $941,000 on Pasifika TV, an initiative to get New Zealand television into the Pacific for the same sort of countering China reasons.)
The team would have to be commercially sustainable, so any Government involvement could be limited to something like underwriting it for the first five years or funding infrastructure in individual countries.
And make no mistake, this plan for a Pacific force is the real deal.
It is believed that NZR Chairman Brent Impey backs it and will likely raise it with Super Rugby’s governing authority SANZAR in the coming days.
Sir Michael Jones and the rest of the NZR board apparently back it too.
The Government are so far on board, having spent $80,000 on the report done by Jeremy Curragh, a rugby commercial operative who was Bay of Plenty CEO. He helped bail out Otago and Southland rugby and is now on the board of the Highlanders and the Chiefs. In other words he knows what he is doing.
The possibilities are huge:
- The domestic population of the three countries tops one million.
- Fiji is a good base, strong economy, lots of international connecting flights.
- Massive "home" games in Auckland and Sydney - just imagine the Pacifica team against the Blues at Eden Park every year.
- An eventual base in tourist mecca Denarau once a new stadium is built.
- Taking the game not just to Apia and Nuku’alofa but to Hawaii and Los Angeles.
-Training camps in places like the Cook Islands.
- Access to a massive global playing base: the Pacific Island Players Association estimates 700 Pacific Island players now ply their trade around the world – around 15% of the world’s total number of professional players.
Added to all this, the fan base would be electrifying - imagine the popularity of the merchandise.
It would greatly improve the Super competition - just 5000 people turned out to the Brumbies/Rebels game this season.
This combined force could be up and running by 2021, when the competition is reshaped, or even sooner if a team like the struggling Japanese Sunwolves drops out (which is a possibility, according to my rugby sources).
The offer is now with Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. I am told they have to accept an independent franchise or else.
That is because New Zealanders could not stomach the likes of Fiji boss Frank Bainimarama or Samoa PM Tuialepa (who is also boss of the Samoa rugby union) being able to get their mitts anywhere near the team.
This is a "real deal" offer to the Islands - they should take it.
The dream of a united Pacific Rugby force is now close to reality.
And it is about bloody time.
Patrick Gower is Newshub's National Correspondent