Rugby Union: Pacific controversy shows that no man is an island: Steve Bale, in Paihia, Bay of Islands, listens in on a debate about nationality that is raising temperatures in New Zealand

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE, all you Welshmen following the Lions from afar, that Jeremy Guscott's real fancy was to play for Wales, that his appearances for England were mere preparation for apostasy.

A beautiful, impossible dream? Well not quite; not, at any rate, if he had been a Samoan who wanted to play for New Zealand. Frank Bunce, a centre for Western Samoa during the 1991 World Cup and now an integral All Black who will certainly face the Lions in the Test series, is a living reminder of the potency of expediency.

It had to happen in the end that someone in New Zealand rugby would kick against the free movement of players between the Pacific islands, in particular Western Samoa and New Zealand.

Bunce is not the only one. Half the Samoans who did so well in the World Cup have subsequently pursued New Zealand honours, emphasising the derisory nature of the international qualifying regulations.

Inevitably it is a subject to which the International Rugby Board has come to too late.

And now that a stand is being taken, it has predictably led to outraged allegations of discrimination. Yet all David Kirk, coach of Wellington, wants to do is ensure that his players are available for the province for the entire season.

Kirk, who led New Zealand to the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and later captained Oxford University, will rule out of selection anyone who chooses to play for Samoa in next year's Super 10, the competition that links New Zealand, South African and Australian provincial rugby with the South Pacific champions (currently Samoa) and has its first final when Transvaal play Auckland in Johannesburg today.

'We feel this ruling, whether it is the policy of the Wellington RU or the personal view of the coach, is inappropriate,' Tiatia Tiatia, the Wellington Samoan rugby committee chairman, said.

'David Kirk appears to be taking away the fundamental right of each player to exercise freedom of choice.' Yes, but what about the poor coach?

Kirk's position as an adviser to the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, makes the issue more sensitive than it might otherwise have been but it does demonstrate the tangle NZ rugby is in as a result of toing and froing it has happily tolerated. Notwithstanding the likes of Dewi Morris and Rupert Moon, such loose loyalty would be impossible in the home unions.

On the other hand, the Lions on tour here have an identity problem of their own: how to make people, back home just as much as in New Zealand, appreciate precisely whom and what they represent.

Ever since they arrived, the NZ papers have been full of the 'Brits'; 'British Lions', an incomplete alternative to the official title British Isles, is so commonplace that the Lions management routinely use it and so does the tour's official booklet.

So what is the problem? When Ireland had just trounced England in Dublin in March Noel Murphy, the Irish manager, was asked whether he thought the result would make a difference to 'British' Lions selection? 'British and Irish Lions', the Irish press chorused as one before Murphy could reply. And they were right.

There may be only two Irishmen on the tour, and Mick Galwey and Nick Popplewell are far too diplomatic to bang on about it, but the Lions represent us all, and by 'all' I mean the entire rugby community of our islands. That means 'British and Irish'. At the same time I am beginning to understand why the British and Irish Lions find it so difficult in New Zealand: their own luggage is emblazoned with the words 'Lion's Tour 1993'.

This is not as painful as what is going on elsewhere in the Pacific. In Tonga, the country's minister of

police and hangman (honest) has withdrawn all the country's policemen from consideration for the national team.

As Tonga are due to play Western Samoa, Scotland and Australia in the next six weeks, this could not be timed worse. 'There is a sense of despair, a sense of disaster,' the Times of Tonga lamented.

The hangman, Noble 'Akau'ola, took umbrage after a match between police and club teams had been abandoned when fighting broke out 10 minutes from the end. The Tongan Rugby Union ruled that the police were the culprits and awarded victory to their opponents.

There were four policemen in Tonga's first-choice XV and now the Tongan RU is considering an appeal to the very highest authority, King Taufa'ahau Tupau IV. 'It is very sad because the policemen were our best players,' Drew Havea, the TRU secretary, sighed. 'But we are still hoping the minister will change his mind.'

On the other hand, give him enough rope . . .

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