Fiji head coach John McKee has spoken out about the state of rugby among Pacific Island nations, with Tonga and Samoa already out of the World Cup.
McKee’s side are likely to follow suit by exiting the tournament at the pool stage, with the tough test against unbeaten Wales to come tomorrow in Oita.
Fiji do appear set to finish third in Pool D and thus secure automatic qualification for the World Cup in France in 2023, at the expense of Georgia.
But McKee outlined how the Pacific Islanders have long been facing an uphill battle to be competitive against Tier 1 nations.
At the centre of McKee’s concerns is player retention; once potential Test-calibre players are identified by the giants of the northern hemisphere, what can Fiji do to prevent home-grown talent from moving overseas?
The answer for McKee is the creation of a professional team.
“We have massive challenges around the pathway for our players,” he said.
“Until the Pacific gets a home-grown professional team, this is always going to be the case.
“The bar always goes up. Over the World Cup cycle I’ve been involved in, we’ve made a lot of gains, but your opposition makes a lot of gains as well so the challenge never gets any easier.”
Unable to offer the lucrative deals available overseas, McKee concedes progress is needed but is wary of projects such as the Nations League, the ditched brainchild of World Rugby vice-chairman Gus Pichot, being realised later down the line and making next to no difference to Fiji.
Draft plans for the Nations League came under fierce scrutiny for including USA and Japan in its 12-team championship, which included the Six Nations and Rugby Championship countries.
A blatant dismissal of the contribution made by Pacific Island nations to rugby on both sides of the equator, according to McKee.
“That was massively disappointing for Fiji. There seemed to be an opportunity presenting, and it got blocked by self-interest at the Six Nations,” New Zealander McKee told Reuters.
“I think for World Rugby, the significance of the international game needs to be kept at the forefront.
“The concern would be that the professional clubs are getting bigger and bigger, and more powerful to the point that rugby becomes more like football, where there’s not really that much interest in internationals outside the World Cup.
“That’s not the structure that rugby union’s built on.”
For the World Cup cycle leading up to the tournament in Japan, World Rugby have pumped around £19.5m into the South Pacific.
And yet with Samoa and Tonga out, the former can inflict a huge upset on Ireland on Saturday. While Tonga pushed France close to the brink only to slip to a 23-21 defeat.