Fale Nonu cried happy tears last week when she told her son, Ma'a, that he had been called up for the All Blacks. The 21-year-old centre got a big hug, too, from his dad, Kava. Although both parents are from Samoa, there were no regrets. Like many before him of Pacific Island descent, including Jonah Lomu, Nonu accepts that only by nailing his colours to the New Zealand mast will he make it to the top.
Some see it as asset stripping in the South Seas, but the International Rugby Board, who would like nothing better than for smaller unions to emerge as competition for the established sides, are caught between a set of isolated rocks and a hard place. Faced with the facts of economic life, the rugby-mad folk of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga often send their offspring to schools in New Zealand. Subsequent generations, like Nonu in Wellington, are born there.
Almost as sobering as the thought that Lomu may never play again due to his kidney disease is the realisation that had his father, Semisi, not emigrated from Tonga to New Zealand, the world might never have known one of the great sporting icons. Australia has also benefited from the intercontinental drift - Willie Ofahengaue, another mighty Tongan, helped the Wallabies win the 1991 World Cup. But the difference with, say, Mike Catt leaving South Africa to play for England, is that, unlike the Springboks, the islands do not have the resources to plug the gaps.
"As soon as a player has shown some potential, they get on a career path," said Tony Meachen, manager of the Samoa team at this weekend's World Sevens in London. "The opportunities when they get to play for New Zealand are pretty compelling. As things stand, the Islands have nothing to compete with it."
Though Lomu's name is sadly absent from the 26-man All Black squad for the Tests against England, Wales and France, Nonu was joined in the backs by two other Polynesian newcomers, Mils Muliaina and Joe Rokocoko. Muliaina was born in Samoa, Rokocoko in Fiji. The latter moved to New Zealand when he was five to go to school, and is set to be the first Fijian All Black since Joeli Vidiri in 1998.
"It would cost Nonu a fortune if he chose to play for Samoa," said Meachen, a New Zealander married to a Samoan. "It is very unusual to be considered for a Super 12 contract unless you are committed to New Zealand."
In fact, among the 150 players contracted to the five New Zealand Super 12 teams, 25 are of Island descent. Approximately half remain eligible for the Islands, including the talented Fijian sevens star Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who like Rokocoko has prospered in Auckland with the Blues. In 2000, the IRB acted to prevent players appearing for more than one country, ruling that an appearance in Test, A or sevens sides was a commitment for life. Earlier this year they knocked back a proposal from New Zealand to remove sevens from the list.
The IRB are continuing to review the issue of eligibility. Bizarrely, players can switch countries if they also switch codes - Australia's Fijian-born wing, Lote Tuqiri, could play rugby league for his homeland if he wished; the current All Black forward Brad Thorn previously turned out for Australia in league. There is a growing conviction that - provided the relevant unions are in agreement - eminent players such as Northampton's All Black Andrew Blowers should be allowed to requalify for the Islands.
Another light on the Islanders' horizon is the creation of a combined Fiji-Samoa-Tonga team, to begin touring in June 2004. "They are looking for a coach now," said Meachen. "If the combined team could be added to the Super 12 it might offer the career path that the Islands-qualified players have been looking for."
At the 1999 World Cup, Lomu played and scored for New Zealand against Tonga. "It was pretty emotional," he said in his video autobio-graphy, "hearing some of your aunties in the crowd, screaming and yelling for the opposition instead of you. It's always been a thing with any Islander who plays for the All Blacks, especially if you're playing against your own place of origin: you have to lead from the front."
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