Rugby’s role in a greater South Pacific strategic reset

In a COVID-affected world we need to think outside the square. Here is one idea as to how New Zealand can both help itself and its South Pacific neighbours, linking sport, tourism and the economy.

This article is about rugby, but it is also about a greater South Pacific strategic reset that goes far beyond rugby. The underlying notion is that in a COVID-affected world, a ‘strategic reset’ for Pacific countries – including New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands – is ‘only words’ until we get down to the specifics of how it might happen. And where better to start than rugby?

A starting point is to recognise that the chances of a rugby competition in 2021 that spans the existing super rugby nations is close to zero. The idea that either Argentina or South Africa could be part of a quarantine-free bubble is fanciful. It will not happen.

An alternative starting point is to recognise that the South Pacific is where many of our key strategic political and economic interests lie. This goes well beyond rugby.   Related to this, the South Pacific is the only part of the world where New Zealand’s influence counts for much.

Coming back to rugby, the existing Super Rugby competition has always been fundamentally flawed because of the travel and time-zone challenges. Games between New Zealand and South African teams have had limited meaning because of the dreaded 10-hour time difference to the west. The entry of the Jaguares from Argentina complicated both time zones and logistics even further, with a nine-hour difference in the other direction to the east.

The natural rugby bubble for both South Africa and Argentina is in Europe. For South Africa, the time-zone at this time of the year is the same as Paris and there is a one-hour difference from Britain. Jet lag is all about time zone differences, not travel distances. Even Argentina has only four-hours of time difference from Britain and five hours from Paris, which is significant but manageable.

So, what would Super Rugby look like in a Pacific Reset featuring the existing New Zealand and Australian franchises, plus Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa? This would mean a 12-team competition with a three-hour maximum time zone difference between them.

Including a team from Western Australia would increase the competition to 13 teams, with the time zones still within five hours of each other. That is still manageable. Japan is a further possibility, being in the same time zone as Western Australia, but the travel hours do add up, although still much simpler and less stressful  than South Africa or Argentina.

However, whether or not to include either a Western Force team or a Sun Wolves team or similar from Japan is not central to the overall idea. It might be a Stage 2.  Or it might never happen.

One scenario would be with each team playing each other once each season, with home and away in alternate seasons. Then perhaps a final playoff with four teams.  That makes 13 weeks in total for a 12-team competition, or alternatively 15 weeks if each team has two byes. But why not just play it right through, with the travel stress now being much less?

In the same way as currently occurs, players could shift franchises once out of contract. That would mean, for example, that Pacific Island teams could contract New Zealand players. The likelihood is that most contracts offered by Pacific Island teams would be with players of Pacific Island heritage, but not necessarily so.

Just as currently, international eligibility would not depend on a player’s super rugby team, but on long-term residency.  Some All Blacks with a Pacific Island heritage might choose to play super rugby for their heritage country under such a system.

As for travel, the most economic solution for air travel is likely to be use of charters.   It would mean, for example, that the Highlanders could fly direct from Dunedin to Suva in around four hours non-stop, with this easily in range for an A320 or A321.  I foresee no problems in filling the plane with supporters. The seats would sell like hot cakes.

There could well end up being a demand for additional charters, given the convenience of charter travel. What better than a pre-organised supporters trip combined with several days with fellow-supporters at a local Pacific Island resort?

If a Western Force team were subsequently added, then a direct charter from say Dunedin to Perth would still only be about 6.5 hours non-stop direct. Supporters would love it.

Now, I said at the start that this was about more than rugby.  The competition would link the Pacific Islands to New Zealand in a wonderful way. Each island country would be hosting at least five home games per year, with an associated flow of tourists. It seems like a win-win for everyone. There might even be scope for a parallel women’s competition to develop.

There will be some doubters. That is the way with every idea that sounds a little different. There will be creases to iron out. But I say let’s do it.   In the new world that we face, a reset means doing things differently. This is one such way we could do things differently.

And as a final thought. New Zealand allocates approximately $NZ700 million each year to its foreign aid budget, with much of this to the Pacific. I have had an involvement in foreign aid projects, funded by New Zealand and international agencies, going back for more than 30 years. Those experiences have left me with an overarching impression that foreign aid money is not always well spent.

Personally, I would be happy to see New Zealand shifting a little of that budget to ensure that the Pacific Islands component of a new super rugby competition is set up on a sound footing. This could be a very worthwhile contribution to Pacific Island tourism and hence Pacific Islanders.  It might be some of the best foreign aid we could give.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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8 Responses to Rugby’s role in a greater South Pacific strategic reset

  1. sallyco says:

    “The “Covid Emergency” will likely be viewed in the future as a “colossal operation of social engineering:: – Vatican Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      This is an arrow that the retired Archbishop Viganò is aiming at Pope Francis for cancelling Catholic mass services, including in the Vatican itself. Archbishop Viganò has been calling for Pope Francis to resign for some years. Statements he makes are on his own behalf and do not represent the Vatican in any way.

      • sallyco says:

        Excerpts from Alex Davis excellent article-
        “First, the March 24 lock down was enabled at least in part by mass panic induced by hysterical media reporting.
        Second, now that New Zealanders *know* that Covid19 is extremely unlikely to kill them but is extremely likely to cause severe economic damage…

        Future 1: Covid19 is not eliminated and breaks out or returns
        Future 2: New Zealand eliminates Covid19 and becomes a South Pacific Prison for its Citizens
        From that second future:
        Whatever hope we may have to eradicate Covid19 in New Zealand one thing is certain – it will not be eliminated from the rest of the world. So, what then? New Zealand is confronted with a lose:lose scenario. We can lower the draw bridge and let the world back in but if we do so it is highly likely we will reimport Covid19
        …it is highly likely someone, somewhere will slip through.”

        And they did very quickly!
        It is disgraceful that other consequences were not considered when this incompetent government made the decision to go from level 2 to level 4.
        IMHO you got it so wrong!

      • Captainbarnacles says:

        Future 3 – the virus attenuates itself, and borders are reopened to admit an attenuated virus.
        Future 4 – A successful treatment or vaccine arises, and borders are reopened after the necessary preliminary steps.
        Future 5 – we all get wiped out by AI, or another man made problem.
        Future 6 – we all upload virtual selves into a virtual universe.
        Future 7 – the second coming and revelations – who could have known???

        (The 5 to 7 seem extremely unlikely at least short term to me)

    • David Porter says:


      We could go back and forth with “facts” from various reputable organisations until the cows come home and yes, the damage to the economy (Both the New Zealand and the world economy) is huge. The article, however, was about what opportunities does the present situation present. I think that Keith’s proposition presents a fantastic opportunity to reset the format of rugby in the South Pacific and hopefully strengthen the bonds of the nations within it.

  2. Captainbarnacles says:

    Yeah – Rugby does sound like the perfect basis for many relationships in the pacific, and a way to get more visitors and tourists into these pacific islands, then raise standards in these nations, where they are current below par.

    RE Covid 19, I have heard the comments from Dr Alberto Zangrillo in Italy (and Massimo Clementi), and Dr Donald Yealy from Pittsburgh about the virus potentially becoming less lethal (in my words). Any thought as to whether there is any reason to doubt what they are saying?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Captain Barnacles,
      At this stage I regard them as outliers in terms of their opinions.
      In Northern Italy patients are getting to hospital much earlier and they can now be put on oxygen (without necessarily ICU). That makes a big difference. Previously the hospitals were overwhelmed. A similar situation occurred in China with very high death rates in Wuhan in late January and early February but death rates were much lower elsewhere in China where the facilities were not overwhelmed.
      Dr Yealy runs the emergency system for UPMC in Pennsylvania. UPMC appears to have had 1200 cases of COVID-19 which is about 1.5% of the Pennsylvania cases and 0.05% of cases in the United States. So we need to be cautious of extrapolation beyond the specifics of the UPMC emergency system.
      Neither team has presented evidence of changed virulence from mutations.
      The overall global trend is of increasing daily recorded cases, closing in towards 150,000 new cases per day. Daily recorded death rates are around 4000 (7 day average) , but this figure is now increasing again. It was approaching 7000 per day when Italy and New York were overwhelmed.
      I remain of the view that so far on a global basis we have seen the prelude but not the fugue. I consider it likely that globally things will get much worse over the next six to eight months. Most countries cannot afford to go back into lockdown. Here in the South Pacific we are in the best part of the world right now.

  3. David Porter says:

    I think that would be a great competition Keith. There’s also the possibility of a West Coat USA team which is the same time difference (4 hours) as Perth the other way. Western Force vs. the US team is a bit of a hike though. Great for the development of the sport but there would be a bit of a mismatch between the Crusaders and an LA team at first. We saw that with the Sunwolves although they came better as time went on.
    The problem, as always, is the money. I agree with you that it is a good use of development money but no matter how good it might be for Pacific Island development, I can already hear the howls of protest from the “rugby already gets everything” crowd! TV money is where it’s at and if significant Japanese and US viewers can be convinced, Super Rugby Pacific is bound to be a saleable product. The International Development money might just be what’s needed to get it going until commercial interests can be convinced.

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