Politics in Fijian rugby saw potential investors in a Pacific Island Super Rugby team buy an English football club instead.
Former Fijian sevens coach Ben Ryan had a group of investors approach him interested in paying for a Pacific Island Super side.
Ryan got as far as meeting with Super Rugby, where formats and a potential date for entering the competition were discussed, before the plan fell through.
His revelation comes after the New Zealand Government had funded a study into the feasibility of a Pacific Island Super Rugby team which would be based in Fiji. The study concluded that a side is viable.
“I had financial backers, investors, that wanted to pay for a Super Rugby franchise on the island,” Ryan, who won the Olympic gold medal with the Fijian sevens side, said.
“We met with Super Rugby at the time and they told me they just had to sort out the format because they were trying to decide if they would lose one Australian franchise, what was going on with the South African franchises, changes in the competition, and once all that got sorted then they would entertain the likelihood of bringing in a franchise in the 2022 or 2023 season.
“The Fiji Rugby Union then went back and basically told me to keep my nose out of it. I’m no longer in Fiji.
“I went back to the investors and gave them both of those pieces of information, and they said, right, this is too risky. They ended up buying a football club in England.”
The Fijian Rugby Union have been approached for comment.
Despite the disappointment of that early attempt failing to get off the ground, Ryan said the recent talks of a Pacific Island team is encouraging.
Ryan is passionate about the potential Pacific Island players have, and trying to set up a better system to help the islands retain their players.
“Now it looks like, because of various movements, maybe the weakness of Australian franchises, maybe the South African franchises moving toward the European competitions, that the Pacific Island franchise is now a real opportunity.
“It’s all about if they can now get it in place because if they do, the players will return and perhaps more importantly, they will start a pathway on the islands.
“So you’ll have Samoans, Tongans, Fijians, and there will be academies in each of the islands as well. With that comes education of coaches, for medics, for staff, for players, and you’ll start to retain players on the islands.
“That franchise could be a very, very exciting one that would add massive value, not just to Super Rugby but to World Rugby because you’re going to get more players available to play international rugby and more time for those international coaches to spend with them.
“It now just needs to happen.”
Rugby turned professional in 1995, with the Super Rugby competition starting and changes being made in the Northern hemisphere.
But the Pacific lags far behind in that regard.
“Where do you go if you want to be a professional rugby player in Fiji? You have to go off the island. There is no alternative,” Ryan said.
“You could stay and play sevens, and you get paid a very small amount of money, and from there you get spotted, seen and normally go and play overseas.
“Imagine having a Super Rugby franchise and solving these problems. The majority of issues would get solved by this.”
Ryan said Denarau Island would be the ideal base for a Pacific side, given it’s location near Fiji’s main airport, five star resorts, golf courses, “and all the things that people will come and visit while watching Super Rugby”.
But he warned rugby to act fast. He said the NRL is looking at introducing a league franchise based in Denarau, and while there is space for both, it could be a race to which sport gets in first.