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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

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
Supporting Pacific nations rugby may be a better use of our foreign aid budget

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.

*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. He can be contacted at

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Mmmm . . . geopolitics.
" New Zealand allocates approximately $NZ700 million each year to its foreign aid budget, with much of this to the Pacific."
Aid is as much about political persuasion as for humanitarian reasons.
Walk around Tarawa in Kiribatai (where you ask?) and one is bombarded with numerous signs "Donated by New Zealand" - housing projects, rescue boats, water projects etc. Not quite anonymous humanitarian donations.
Look up from anywhere in Port Vila, there on the skyline is Vanuatu's most impressive modern Parliament Buildings incongruous to the surrounds. At the entrance, the sign proclaims loudly, "Donated by China".
So why not rugby? I don't think China can compete on that one.

Yes, I do know Kiriabati.
Back in the late 1990s I and two colleagues undertook an assignment for AusAID as to aid strategies for Kiribati. It was part of a larger assignment we did for AusAID looking at poor and vulnerable countries, with the case studies being Kiribati, Tuvalu, Cambodia and Laos. Great challenges in Kiribati, with a rapidly increasing population and key resource constraints, most of which are independent of climate change. You are absolutely correct in saying that aid decisions are driven by political persuasions, with key decision makers in the agencies seldom having much grass roots experience. I first learned that when I was working on a NZAID funded project in Fiji in the early 80s. I could write many articles about those experiences, and my present suggestion here is influenced by those experiences.

Hi Keith
Great to hear from someone who has spent time there. My comment re "Where you ask?" certainly wasn't directed towards you, more of a general comment that we are involved in aid projects there but most Kiwis are oblivious to Kirirbati and even then most likely to mispronounce the name.
I was in Kirirbati about four years or so ago. Spent time on both Tarawa and Butaritari - I just like being a tourist off the beaten track. At the time some Kiwis working on the roading upgrade on Tarawa. My wife and I were the only two tourists to visit Butarirai that year!
Since your time, Tarawa is now facing considerable issues due to internal migration - arguably the issues related to population pressures are currently more significant and immediate than the longer term sea level changes (although evidence of that too).
From what I have seen, Kiriabti is facing more severe issues and need of aid compared to Cambodia and Laos. I have not visited Tuvalu.
In terms of geopolitics, although just only 800km2 in land area, it's exclusive economic zone of 3,441,810 km2 is very significant. Main foreign presence seems to be New Zealand, but also Australia and Canada. United States and Japan seem to have the dominant political influence north of that and tying up the remainder of most of the north Pacific. The tuna fishing industry seemed to be foreign owned and controlled - not sure which countries involved but with Fijian based boats.
I can understand China feeling a high degree of frustration and it is reminiscent of Japan in the 1930's.
On Tarawa there was recently a two story retail/accommodation block built by Chinese; the only two story building and - to the delight of the kids - the only escalator on the atoll. That was the only physical evidence I could see of a Chinese presence or interest.
So yes, greater rugby presence in the Pacific will have a far more significant influence than simply the sport. In 1981 it was clearly recognised that sport and politics are intertwined.

My experience of Chinese projects is that they usually go for infrastructure but they don't always get that right.
In contrast, NZ tends to go for capacity and capability building, but the time-frames are usually too short and they under-estimate the challenges of maintaining things.
As one example, in PNG our program included, as one part of a much larger project, taking some 35 people through a specially structured masters program which we taught mainly in PNG. It worked well, but the years have now gone by, and those people have now either died or retired or in at least one case also gone to jail, and eventually things start slipping back, with a lack of ongoing mentoring for a difficult environment. There are also challenges with ongoing staff changes in the funding agencies, with new people coming through who have no idea as to the cultural challenges, but trying to implement new philosophies of aid based on the latest idea that they have learned from a book. Aid projects can be tremendously challenging. My experience is that aid projects can be very frustrating but never boring.

Agreed; "they usually go for infrastructure but they don't always get that right". Little value in a two story retail/accommodation building with escalator on an atoll such as Tarawa.
Find aid to Vanuatu for a parliament buildings for a democracy a little at odds with CCP - or is it simply intended as a daily reminder to the local politicians.

Prof Woodford,

I am expecting you write something on the Hai Nan Free Trade Island project just recently announced by the Chinese government.

it looks like this significant news got no mention anywhere in NZ, which is a pity.

Thanks for the info. It shows how fast China can act and the money they can bring to solving a problem. This Trade Island is actually in China's Hainan Province so not relevent to Covid-19 free Pacific Islands but the underlying idea is highly relevent. In the long term China's size makes it likely to dominate the Pacific Islands - just in weight of tourists - so NZ must act now if it wants to retain some influence in the Pacific. Later when Australia digs itself out of Covid-19 infections they should get involved in the Pacific Islands that they have long historic connections with (eg PNG).

I led an institutional project in PNG for about 8 years all up, but never lived there, flying in and out about four times each year. Very interesting working alongside a Chinese project, and to a lesser extent a Japanese project. I sometimes ponder as to who made the least mistakes and achieved the most.

I worked in PNG for 14 years before ending up in NZ. You may have guessed from my name. I brought a chunk of it to NZ. Fascinating place with fascinating people and as a friend once said to me "whatever they say about PNG everyday is interesting". Another friend who did some work for the World Bank told me that the World Bank rates projects in PNG as being more likely to fail than almost any other country. That seems probable.

Great idea. Needs action now and preferably with multi-party political support.

"" I foresee no problems in filling the plane with supporters. The seats would sell like hot cakes. "" The older and wetter it becomes in NZ the faster they will sell. Only problem I can find is rugby supporters unable to get on flight because all seats have been bought by elderly Kiwis substituting Pacific Islands for their ocean cruises.

Interesting article.
One key question I have - the competitiveness or otherwise of Pacific teams. It could become a very 'us and them' competition, which would lose interest for everyone.

Fiji, Samoa and Tonga all competed in the World Cup last year which places them in the top 20 nations.
With northern hemisphere rugby in disarray, and with COVID-19 not going away for at least 18 months, there will be a significant number of Pacific Island expats from those competitions interested in playing at home.
Also there are a lot of Pacific Islanders in NZ who would love to be part of that competition and then come back to their NZ base for the ITM cup.
Here in NZ we have been poaching Pacific Islanders for many years who come here typically at about age 15 or 16 to develop their rugby, in part because the opportunities in the islands are much less. We need to address that situation.

Fair point, but they will still struggle for depth. Maybe one Pacific team covering several countries. I really don't think there is enough depth for 3-4 teams. Base in Suva, and play games throughout the islands.
And have a Japanese team.
Then the rest NZ/Aus.

I am not aware of 'Combined Pacific Island' teams in any sport. Would need setting up a totally new structure outside the existing national structures and starting from scratch.

Fritz, New Zealand has a rather tepid interest in Rugby. Whereas Samoa -v- Tonga that would be an epic.

As always Keith, thought-provoking, and I like the concept, apart from the money side of it. It would need big buy-in from all the Australian franchises & I would suggest Japan as well, after all, they're Pacific Islands just like the rest of us.

Long John Martin
I think Australia has few alternatives for its rugby.
From a rugby perspective I think it is one of the few options for 2021, and better than simply a NZ and Aussie comp.
I think the Pacific island could surprise us with their standard of rugby once we stopped treating them as the poor cousins. One only has to look at the influence of Islanders in our NZ teams.
I too think that Japan could and probably should be part of it, but getting that going for 2021 might be a stretch. It was never going to work as part of the mega group containing South Africa and Argentina but could fit in nicely within a genuine Pacific cluster. To make it work logistically with the Islands, then it would need charter flights from Japan to the Islands but that should work OK. Charters are the way of the future.

The reason this will not happen is the same reason I can't currently fly to the Cook Islands right now, despite both countries being Covid free. Because NZ doesn't make decisions for itself. It has its decisions made for it. We're a cog in a bigger machine.

What do you think the reason for quarantining arrivals from the Cook Islands actually is? It makes no sense medically or in terms of traditional ties. Is our govt being leant on and if so by whom? Australia or USA for showing up their failure to control Covid-19 or China's desire to make the entire Pacific ocean part of the South China sea? It baffles me.

One - it illustrates our utter disdain for the Islands. Not once in popular discourse is it mentioned about a feasible opening up to the islands given their Covid free status (not to mention their utter reliance on our tourism). The narrative is only about Australia, yes, the anti-China fellow 5 eyes partner in crime Australia. I'm sure that particular spy alliance would love to see a 5 eyes bubble + vassal states like Japan and South Korea to further attempt to postpone the inevitable Chinese takeover of world affairs. Personally I feel we are being hemmed in by a population-control-in-the-name-of-health measure and blinded by wall to wall propaganda about China (see comments section as exhibit A), so we will never make a clear and informed decision, the decision has been made for us. We are to fear anything external to the surveillance state apparatus of which we are a useful part of. We are not to be creative, sensible, common sensical nor pragmatic in our approach to these things. We will be fed the narrative and our smiley leaders will tell us whats what.
A footnote - and it's telling I must qualify my perspective as such - or run the risk of being called a Chinese sympathiser. I'm not. But I yearn for an independent NZ. Where WE can decide what's best for us. And if that's trading with China. Then so be it. If it's spying for Google, DoD, etc, then so be it. If it's creating a Pacific Island bubble. Then so be it. But WE should make those calls, not others.

'Utter disdain for islands' I thought the main reason we haven't opened it up is because we want to protect them from the virus, ie don't want a measles repeat.

I would agree with that, the decision has to do with the ability to support the islands if they did have an outbreak there.

"Utter disdain for the Islands"?

Right now there is a lot of hot air about the Cooks. The activists and pushers and self-interested are bleating that NZ has an obligation to Cook Islanders and our border lock-down should be lifted - because they depend on tourism for their livelihood. The pressure is building. Marcus Lush describes the place as a bunch of polluted lagoons that he wouldn't even swim in - he has been there a few times.

Twenty years ago it was revealed that 90% of the Cook Island workforce are civil servants that are paid directly from the NZ taxpayers purse. Be surprised if that has changed much

Do they also get the bene and nz super over there.

I believe so. They are New Zealanders in every sense. The Cook Islands are a part of the NZ realm

As you say in every sense except being treated properly by the NZ govt which is willing to put Australia ahead of its own.

The only people that are pushing the Trans-Tasman bubble are NZ government and vested interests here. Morrison pays lip-service to it. He cant open the borders. As far as I'm concerned a Trans-Tasman bubble will be a zero-sum game with little to no net-benefit to either country. As stated above the Cook Islanders are well catered for. They are destroying their own country. At the rate they're going there won't be too many inbound visitors unless visitors go to see paradise that once was. Or expats going back for a quick visit to family. In and out.

Population of Cook Islands = 16000
Cook Islanders in Australia = 7000
Cook Islanders living in NZ = 62000

population statistics
Population of Samoa
2001 = 175,500
2006 = 181,100
2010 = 186,200
2016 = 195,100
2017 = 196,440

NZL Samoan population
2001 = 115,000
2006 = 131,100
2013 = 144,100
2018 = 182,700

AUCKLAND Samoan Population
2001 = 76,000
2006 = 88,000
2013 = 96,000

AUSTRALIAN Samoan Population
2006 = 39,900
2011 = 55,800
2016 = 75,700
Population of Tonga
2001 = 98,600
2016 = 107,100
2017 = 108,020
2019 = 110,100

Tongan Population in NZ
2001 = 40,700
2013 = 60,300
2018 = 82,300
Population of Niue 1611
NZ population of Niueans 24,000

A nice Niuean girl started work the same day as me at my first job as a school leaver. Govt job. I was once told to slow down by the old 40 something yo codgers as it wasnt the done thing to put in a good days work. She had a great attitude to work and life and will have done well for herself.

Yep, Niueans are nice people and Niue is a great place. I spent 2 years there in the early 80's and have been back on holiday since. Would go there on holiday again 'tomorrow'. The place might not suit everyone as a holiday destination, but it is quite different to other Pacific Islands (I've been to about a dozen of them), and something different is good.

Also started out in the public service and my boss told me a few times that I was better suited to private enterprise (equivalent of your being told to slow down!) I did do my own thing for about 10 years, but found work more exciting and lucrative overseas - to the point where I could come back to NZ and retire at 50.

I didnt spend time oseas but could retire comfortably if I wanted. Public service was nzpo for 2 years then higher ed

Houseworks and Two Cents
I agree totally with your comments of the public service.
Roger Hall's "Gliding On" was not a comedy - rather a documentary. :)

From what I have seen as an occasional consultant over the past few years, they generally work hard, it's just that there are some strange priorities and practices.

5098 now fritz. A very good achievement considering what could have been

Nz Rugby in the 2020s is like NZ Lamb in the 1970s no one wants it because they've all gone home grown. Lets face it, Northern Hemisphere rugby is streets ahead of our crumby super comp...

Northern Hemisphere rugby without Southern Hemisphere players and coaches?

It is hard to see how Northern hemisphere rugby can function for at least the next 18 months, except perhaps Japan. I think there will be plenty of Sothern hemisphere expatriates looking at their options.
I note that the 2018 Samoan team that went to the Northern Hemisphere had 11 members who played for NZ provinces and 20 who played in Europe. None were playing locally in Samoa.
There are also a significant number of current All Blacks with Samoan heritage and some might be interested in a Samoan contract if their NZ All Black eligibility was retained.
There will also be Pakeha expats looking for a new Super Rugby home next year.

NZ and Aussie, and now a a lot of Euro country's, have been picking the eyes out of the Pacific talent for years. School scholarships followed by pro union or league contracts abound. Players follow the money. The reality is the only thing holding the Islands back from a seat at the super table is a lack of real sponsorship and TV revenue to fund the sport on home soil. Lets face it they all have ther issue that require money ahead of sport so its unlikely this will change. Developing players and talent at grass roots requires funding. They just don't have the economic excess to do so.

We have the similar issue with lots of senior but non AB contract players heading to Europe for the cash. Super is becoming younger and younger as a result. The reality is NZ is poised to become the Brazil of soccer, with all of its best talent offshore. Next ten years for the sport will be very interesting to see what decision the NZRFU make.

Money has to come from TV rights. Crowd Atmosphere critical and who can match a Tongan crowd for enthusiasm