By Terry O’Neill.
The local rugby season kicks off on 2nd April. Leading up to it local clubs will mirror other Heartland clubs and battle to e
nsure full premier squads, an increasingly difficult assignment.
Polynesian players are an integral part of the Heartland scene. Many unions made derogatory comments about North Otago’s inclusion of Pacific Island players but North Otago was simply the forerunner of today’s necessity. A couple of seasons ago former All Black and Mid Canterbury lock Jock Ross told me that some Mid Canterbury clubs only survived in premier ranks because of inclusion of Pacific Island players. Similar to all other Heartland unions.
The all-important necessary visas for Pacific Island players are not easily obtained and often are only for a set time. In some cases Pacific Islanders arrive on student visas to attend school, and play rugby, and others can apply for work visas under a skills’ shortage category or there is the specific purpose or event category, a rugby visa, for one year that may be renewed.
The North Otago Rugby Union does not actively recruit Tongans who generally arrive because of family or friends here. NORFU CEO Colin Jackson said the Union tended to go to Europe, USA or Canada for recruitment and over the past eight years more than 70 players have been under this scheme in North Otago.
Putting aside claims from some white rugby supremacists, without Polynesians there would be no premier rugby locally because of our small population base. Polynesians’ natural talents see many promoted to the top of the North Otago rugby tree to fill the gap created by the lack of other skilled young local players.
But it’s not one way traffic. Over the last two northern seasons local players, Jeremiah Shields, Keegan Anderson, Kayne Middleton, Thomas Shields and Jared Whitburn, all spent a rugby season overseas. It’s not only a rugby experience they benefit from, it’s a life-enhancing experience too.
In addition local rugby clubs Athletic, Kurow, Excelsior, Maheno and Valley have made direct contact with overseas rugby unions and clubs and obtained players.
It’s a conundrum how Immigration NZ treats Pacific Islanders. For instance, French, Italian or Argentinian players may live here for a year or eighteen months without any problem while most Pacific Island players work visas entitle them to be here for only six months and they’ve got to head home if they have no other suitable employment skills to offer in New Zealand.
Clubs and minor unions don’t seem to receive much support from the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. When will NZRU boffins realise that to ignore the deterioration of New Zealand’s rugby base will not augur well for those higher up the rugby food chain? And in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji how long will they be able to retain their World Cup status?