By Lee Smith, IRB Regional Development Manager for Oceania.
The development of rugby in Oceania covers the whole spectrum, from the sophistication and large playing numbers of Australia and New Zealand to unions such as Guam and Niue, whose playing numbers are the same as the average size club in the previous two mentioned unions.
The anomaly lies in the fact that the people of the Pacific unions have a natural affinity for the game of rugby and can play it very well, especially with the ball in hand, so no matter what their size, they are all punching above their weight, and I don't mean this literally.
Of the 11 unions, five have qualified for the finals tournament at RWC and at least six will qualify for the finals tournament at RWC sevens. This makes the region proportionally the most successful and important rugby region in the world.
With the exceptions of Australia and New Zealand, development in the Pacific is impeded not only by small playing numbers, but also the problem of distance.
This is something that people elsewhere in the world do not appreciate. From Auckland to Brisbane is as far as Dublin to Athens. The Cook Islands cover a sea area larger than Europe, but the total land area would fit inside Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest lake, which is in the middle of the North Island.
Because of these small numbers direct communication by air between unions is infrequent and often non-existent, so that air travellers have to fly on either one or two days a week, or they must pass through New Zealand or Australia on their way. This of course increases travel costs and is aggravated by the third world status of some union's economies and the low standard of living of many of their citizens when measured within the cash economy.
It is for this reason that talented Pacific Island players seek to improve themselves financially by obtaining contracts offshore. Given the state of their own economies their expectations are at least initially very low, making them "cheap buys" for overseas clubs.
This means that on a per-head basis many players can be recruited from the islands for the same outlay as one or two from elsewhere. Care must be taken to ensure that provision is made for life after rugby, especially when the professional opportunity could well be very short lived for a number of reasons.
Practically, the enthusiasm for Rugby in the islands exceeds the enthusiasm anywhere else in the world. Playing numbers can be misleading because everyone plays at a level to suit their ability and their age. The game is firmly knitted into the fabric of their societies, especially in Polynesia and Fiji.
In the past development programmes have enjoyed many "new dawns" with programmes having impact on those directly involved during the visit, but leaving behind only enthusiasm and no development pathway.
It is the IRB's intention to create this pathway by returning to maintain momentum and ensure progress two to three times each year. The aim is not just to present but to make demands of those attending courses to apply their knowledge to their players and their teams in order to achieve recognized qualifications.
To achieve this the IRB is most thankful to Australia and New Zealand, who have made available sufficient trainers in both coaching and refereeing to allocate one in each area to each of the unions. It is these people facilitating development in partnership with the Island unions that will lead to sustainable development.
However, it must be made very clear that it is very much a partnership with these unions, and that development is not welfare. Consequently, both trainers and unions must contribute to and follow a mutually agreed development plan, with the unions keeping the plan on track year after year.
Given the potential that exists under the present circumstances and the many excellent players produced, there would seem to be no limit to the results that such a programme will produce. It is just a matter of effort.
The help that the IRB gives each union is both financial and in kind and the extent to which it can be delivered is only limited by the determination of the unions to succeed.
Before long regional competitions at all levels and both in 15's and 7's, as a regional incentive and an incentive to qualify for world competitions, will provide an opportunity for the results of this development to be shown as a measure of what this potential really is.