Pacific Island rugby on cusp of greatest step forward since turn of professionalism

Wednesday was a landmark day for Pacific Island rugby.

They are not there yet, but New Zealand Rugby's decision to hand Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua conditional licences to join the 10 Kiwi and Australian Super Rugby teams from 2022 is the most significant step toward forging genuine Pacific pathways since the turn of professionalism.

It should not, of course, have taken 26 years to reach this juncture. But as the legendary Sir Bryan Williams remarked at the announcement, it's "better late than never".

Global rugby has benefited immensely from the spread of Pacific talent and the captivating skill Fiji, Samoa and Tongan athletes frequently produce. There is no one else like them on the planet. One could go as far to suggest the failure to return the favour by establishing professional entities in the Pacific before now was a cynical ploy to keep their talent flowing to the established elite.

In some respects, that assertion holds true, but it's also too simplistic a brush to paint a vexed issue.

Much more could have been done but so, too, does natural migration play a big part in the many Pacific players who have, and continue to, represent the All Blacks and Wallabies.

Further north France, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Italy have all actively welcomed Pacific Islanders into their teams.

Corruption, self-interest and governance problems that beset Island rugby, crippling it from the inside, also played an unfortunate role in the degradation of the Island nations.

Look no further than Samoa - from multiple World Cup quarterfinals to 14th in the world. It's a sad tale.

Now, though, Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua are on the cusp of a breakthrough that could, in time, help transform those nations' ability to compete.

Sir Michael Jones stood alongside Williams at the announcement in Auckland and spoke of how "BG" broke the ceiling to inspire generations of those with Island heritage to follow him into the All Blacks. Since then, we've witnessed Jonah Lomu, Joe Rokocoko and many others follow suit.

Soon there could be a viable pathway that instead upholds the unique Island cultures and provides pathways back to their home nations.

As it stands, this avenue does not exist.

Many Island players are therefore forced to leave home at young, vulnerable ages and travel to foreign lands where they may not know the language to forge careers - often in the sole hope of supporting families.

Rokocoko knows first-hand some don't survive that pursuit. Some get ripped off by rogue agents. Others get cast aside and don't know where to turn.

Finally, an alternative looms on the horizon. If done right, with sustainability and perseverance at its core, these teams could be game-changers for the next generations of talented Island players, of which there are many.

In light of the licence announcement Nemani Nadolo, the Leicester Tigers and Fijian wing, said: "Knowing the next generation of talent coming from the Islands don't have to look overseas "1st"to play professional rugby. Congratulations and thank you to all involved."

Olympic sevens gold medallist Naca Cawanibuka followed up with: "When it does sail god willing it'll be a hell of a ride. Our forefathers sailed across mighty oceans and landed in paradise. It took them time to build their canoe to survive the challenge. The time is right."

Even those with no religious ties should be muttering Amen.

No one in their right mind could argue the Island nations don't deserve this chance to bridge the ever-growing gap and have a stake in their shop window.

As always, forming the financial backbone remains the final piece of the puzzle.

Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua must raise around $[NZ]9-10 million to fund their respective teams annually - $5-6 million of which will be spent on coaching, management and players.

World Rugby has committed $2.3m in annual funding, guaranteed for an initial three-years, while the teams will split an expected $5m in broadcast revenue.

"That's all commercially sensitive but, yeah, there will be an investment by New Zealand Rugby in that space," NZ Rugby boss Mark Robinson confirmed.

"We're really interested in the further development of the business plans for both teams and we're continuing to work with Rugby Australia around their comfort levels and approval as well.

"There's investment into the teams, understanding a bit more about their potential capital structure. All those things are the finals parts.

"There's a bit of chicken and egg here too. Until we're able to commit to an opportunity like this it's hard for them to go out and have those conversations.

"Hopefully that gives enough impetus without guaranteeing everything but it sends a very strong signal that there will be a licence there should it proceed positively in the next couple of months."

All Blacks centurion Ma'a Nonu, Steven Luatua and Vince Aso, who is out of favour at the Hurricanes, are some mooted players Moana Pasifika may chase while Tana Umaga and former Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger joined forces to coach the team's inaugural match against NZ Maori last December.

Realistically, luring the likes of Luatua back from Bristol will be a stretch as he would need to take a huge pay cut. Yet at least now both teams can start approaching coaches and players with some certainty.

"They've got ideas and plans and in place but until you actually create an opportunity it's hard for them to go out and make those important decisions," Robinson said. "We're hearing different speculation about who those people might be and that's really exciting - some great names bandied about. We look forward to seeing what progress they make in that space too."

Perhaps more importantly in the context of a long-term vision, Moana Pasifika co-chairman Pelenato Sakalia offered assurances governance mistakes of the past won't be repeated.

"We totally understand the complexities of our stakeholders. It's not just Samoa and Tonga it's the governments and the rugby unions and the players. We've had to ensure we've set up a business model and structure that addresses all the challenges we have," Sakalia said.

"It's well known there are governance challenges in the Pacific - just like it's well known when it comes to money and commercial the Pacific find that challenging. We've had to design something that's respectful of the role culture and status has in Pasifika. They sit at the apex.

"While we've got different stakeholders the trust is the thing that's going to hold it all together."

Getting two professional teams over the line would be a giant leap for the Pacific rugby and, indeed, the start of repaying a debt of gratitude to the great entertainers of the world game.