WELLINGTON, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Bundee Aki’s inclusion in the Ireland squad last week prompted a few grumbles in the local media but it could not have come as a major shock to anyone that a New Zealander with Samoan heritage might be about to make his test debut in green.
The plunder of Pacific island talent was once a stick used by the northern hemisphere to beat New Zealand, an allegation that might help explain how a nation of a few million could produce a team as dominant as the All Blacks.
If there was always some foundation to the accusation - Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko and Mils Muliaina were born in the islands - there is barely a tier one nation who could level it with a straight face today.
England, Australia, Wales, France and Italy have all fielded players who would qualify to play for Fiji, Samoa or Tonga in recent years.
The attraction for those nations is clear, with the blend of bulk, power and pace the Pasifika players offer being perfectly suited to the attritional battle that is modern rugby.
For the players, while their sentiment might favour staying home and improving their national teams, the economic realities of growing up in Suva, Apia or Nukuʻalofa, or even a poor neighbourhood of Auckland, make a move abroad highly attractive.
Aki, now 27, faced a logjam of talented players in front of him in the queue for an All Blacks shirt and was coaxed to Connacht in 2014 by their coach, Auckland-born former Samoa captain Pat Lam.
No promises were made, but Aki made it clear he intended to fulfil World Rugby’s residency requirements and qualify for Ireland.
“That’s a big part of my decision to move,” he said. “Hopefully when the time is right and if I’m playing good footy, hopefully I can play for Ireland.
“I’m eligible for Samoa. That was another big decision for myself. If I play three years over there and it doesn’t go well, I can always go back to Samoa.
“They are a good international team as well but I’m just trying to look after my family and myself.”
Aki’s final comment was most telling.
A young father, Aki felt the financial security offered playing in, and perhaps one day for, Ireland surpassed that of a player on the fringes of All Blacks selection or as a Samoan international on a temporary work visa in Europe.
“It is a huge honour to represent any country,” former Samoa centre and Pacific Rugby Players’ (PRP) representative Seilala Mapusua told Reuters.
“But a rugby career is a very small window and ... when the decisions are so personal, like ... family reasons, it’s pretty hard to ignore those reasons.”
If Aki does win an Ireland cap, he will have plenty of Pasifika company on the rugby pitches of Europe this month.
The Wallabies squad heading north contains four players born in Fiji, while the All Blacks named six Pasifika-born players in their extended 37-man squad.
England coach Eddie Jones named three players with Pasifika heritage in his wider squad, while three others were not considered due to injury.
Wales loose forward Taulupe Faletau was born in Tonga but moved to Wales as a child while New Zealand-born prop Uini Atonio, who has Samoan heritage, is likely to appear for France.
Even Japan has 10 players with Pasifika heritage in their squad for their November.
Japan is where the rugby elite will converge next year for the ninth World Cup and no doubt a reprise of the quadrennial hand-wringing over how to improve the lot of the Pacific island nations.
World Rugby announced in May it would be extending the residency requirement to switch national teams from three to five years in 2021 but that looks unlikely to stem the flow of talent from the islands.
Hale T-Pole, who also works for PRP, said the exodus was caused by many complicated economic, social and cultural factors.
“We are in a tough gig,” T-Pole, who played 33 tests for Tonga, told Reuters.
“There are no easy solutions to this player drain and of players choosing to play for tier one countries but I fully understand where they are coming from.”
NEW ZEALAND EXPORTS
Although the widespread recruitment of Pasifika players renders academic the argument over which nation is most guilty, it does still exercise some minds.
Hautahi Kingi has conducted data analysis of the birthplaces of almost every player to have debuted for the 10 major rugby nations in the post-1996 professional era.
Kingi found that New Zealand had given debuts to more Pasifika-born players (21) than any other nation with the obvious exception of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
The Washington DC-based economist and statistician, though, said that the tally is reasonably low given the number of islanders who have decamped to New Zealand since World War Two.
“Auckland has more Samoans than Samoa does,” Kingi said.
Kingi also points out the extent to which, as Aki’s move illustrates, New Zealand has become a significant exporter of rugby talent itself.
His statistics show that more than 220 New Zealand-born players had played for another country from 1996-2016.
Australia selected 16, while England have fielded 10 New Zealand-born players, including current captain Dylan Hartley and Mako Vunipola, who was born in Wellington to Tongan parents.
His younger brother Billy, also an England international, was born in Sydney before their father Feʻao moved north to play for Pontypool.
Both brothers consequently grew up in Wales. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney/Peter Rutherford)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.