The Wallabies have done rather well out of their neighbours from the Pacific islands over the last couple of decades, thanks for asking: think Ofahengaue and Tabua of old, think Tuqiri and sundry Kefus of more recent vintage. It may, therefore, seem just a little rich of John O'Neill, the chief executive officer of the Australian Rugby Union, to go all tearful about the torments and traumas currently being suffered by Fji, Samoa and Tonga as they attempt to prepare for a World Cup that threatens to leave them almost as impoverished competitively as they are economically.
But at least O'Neill is big enough to admit that the "rape" of the islands' most precious sporting resource - their young rugby talent - is now threatening the entire fabric of the international game. New Zealand, even more culpable in this regard, have never shown the slightest concern for the well-being of the South Seas unions. And yesterday, he went further still by demanding that the International Rugby Board investigate the circumstances under which more than a dozen front-line Test players decided against representing their countries in Australia.
Simon Raiwalui and Jacob Rauluni of Fiji; Trevor Leota and Isaac Fea'unati of Samoa; Aisea Havili, Tevita Vaikona, Lesley Vainikolo and Epi Taione of Tonga - all these and more will spend the next two months playing club rugby in Britain rather than participating in the World Cup. Their employers have been giving it the "Not us, guv" line for weeks, insisting the players have made their own decisions, free of coercion. But rugby-playing islanders in England and Wales are no different from rugby-playing islanders in New Zealand. They cannot afford not to play club rugby, because it is their only realistic source of income.
Other nations are struggling to draw together their strongest squads for similar reasons. Four Namibians - Hugo Horn, Jané du Toit, Johannes Theron and Lean van Dyk - are earning their corn in the Currie Cup, South Africa's premier domestic competition, and are in no mood to bite the hand that feeds them. Romania and Georgia have also had difficulties. Their plight has O'Neill worried, not least because he wants this Australian World Cup to rival the spectacular 1995 event in South Africa - the last global tournament before the game was declared open, and the last one that even pretended to offer a level playing field.
"Clearly, we want every team to put their best team on the paddock," O'Neill said in Adelaide yesterday. "That is a requirement of the IRB, so we are looking to the board to actively investigate, to see if they can find a problem. I haven't seen absolutely unambiguous evidence [of wrong-doing] but I have heard what some of the coaches of the smaller unions have said, and it's pretty alarming. If we're talking about blatant disregard and abuse of IRB regulations, then it is a disgrace. If you have regulations that govern the game off the field, and they are not being complied with, there is something wrong."
Poor Romania, who must compete in a pool including Argentina and Ireland as well as the host nation, lost two more players yesterday, this time for entirely legitimate reasons. Dan Tudosa, their prop, and Costica Mersoiu, their back-row forward, are suffering from rib and shoulder injuries respectively, and have been replaced by Ion Paulica and Cornel Tatu. Meanwhile, the Irish have drafted in Paddy Wallace, the utility back from Ulster, as replacement for Jonathan Bell, the centre who broke down in training earlier this week.
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