England to test Pacific islanders' skills in pioneering tour

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The Independent Online

Most of the recent scandals surrounding international rugby - the Twickenham deal with satellite television, the share-out of Five Nations broadcasting receipts, the Premiership clubs' attempt to clarify their competition and marketing rights through the European Court - have involved England, so often the hapless patsies of the world game.

Most of the recent scandals surrounding international rugby - the Twickenham deal with satellite television, the share-out of Five Nations broadcasting receipts, the Premiership clubs' attempt to clarify their competition and marketing rights through the European Court - have involved England, so often the hapless patsies of the world game.

The boot will be on the other foot in the summer of 2002, though, when the red rose army do their bit to end a gross injustice that has been allowed to fester for years.

Twickenham officials confirmed yesterday that England will undertake their first major tour of the Pacific islands. They have played in Fiji before - there were Tests between the two countries in Suva in 1988 and 1991 - but Samoa and Tonga will be virgin territory for Clive Woodward's team. Tour details are yet to be finalised, but a great swathe of natural players from Apia to Nuku'alofa will see the trip as a highly significant breakthrough in their campaign to establish their countries as senior rugby nations.

That campaign has been undermined at every turn by the international community, particularly the New Zealanders, who, of all people on the planet, have only to roll out of bed to pitch up amid the palm trees of the Pacific. Scandalously, the All Blacks have never played a Test in Fiji, let alone Samoa or Tonga, despite capping players like Joeli Vidiri, Michael Jones and Frank Bunce, all of whom made their initial international appearances in island colours. Likewise, the Springboks have never visited the region. Of the home nations, only Wales have made a full tour there, winning all three Tests in 1986.

Pat Lam, the Samoan who led Northampton to a first Heineken Cup title last season, has frequently warned that his country, one of the richest reservoirs of rugby talent on earth, will dry up without regular visits from the élite of the world game. Like many of his brethren, he was shocked when New Zealand, Australia and South Africa slammed the Super 12 and Tri-Nations doors on the Pacific countries, let alone a combined island side. England's visit will not right the entire catalogue of wrongs, but it will at least send out a signal to the islanders that someone cares.

Lower down the red rose scale, Nigel Melville was yesterday confirmed as manager of the England Under-21 side for the new season. The Wasps coach, highly regarded in management circles, said he regarded the appointment as a "major challenge", and he is likely to find out precisely how major when England start their international campaign in Wales in February. The Red Dragons may not win too many medals when they mix it with the grown-ups, but their age group rugby is extremely strong.

Bristol are attempting to bolster a Premiership squad low on confidence and even lower on results by signing the French international utility back Ugo Mola on a loan deal. Regarded as one of the quickest players in European rugby, Mola is under contract at Castres, but an agreement between the two clubs looks far more likely than when the move was first mooted during the summer.

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