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Globetrotting Pacific rugby stars to light up World Cup

Raphaël Lakafia

Pacific's Raphaël Lakafia ... first cap for France against Ireland this weekend in a World Cup warm-up match. Photo: Irish Independent

While the lure of lucrative contracts may pull Island players away from their home countries, Pacific rugby fans will next month be treated to their best athletes going toe-to-toe for the William Webb Ellis trophy, rugby’s grandest prize.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Christopher Chang

When the All Blacks worked out their haka against Tonga in the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, the atmosphere was electric. As Tonga responded with their own challenge, the noise from the spectators became thunderous.

Rugby World Cup chief executive Martin Sneddon used the video of the two rugby sides performing haka to promote the tournament coming to New Zealand.

Four South Pacific teams are competing at this year’s World Cup – Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and hosts New Zealand.

The All Blacks have been the beneficiaries of countless players with their heritage from these nations. B G Williams, Michael Jones, Tana Umaga, Jonah Lomu … the list goes on.

But a number of other Pacific Island players are braced to make their mark at Rugby World Cup 2011. They’re not just with the island teams at the tournament.

NZ Rugby World CupManusamoa Tuilagi is in line to play for England and Raphaël Lakafia has displaced Sébastien Chabal in the French side and has been called up for his first cap against Ireland in Bordeaux this weekend.

Tongan-born Sione Vatuvei is teammates with Toetu’u Taufa in the Japan national squad.

Prime Minister John Key says 85,000 people would descend on the country and they would feel a real Pacific presence during the event.

“We want them to take home not only memories of some great rugby games, but also a sense that they have been to the Pacific,” Key says.

Pacific skill and power
Pacific Island rugby players often possess a stunning combination of skill and physique that appealing to countries abroad.

New Zealand Herald sports writer Wynne Gray says physically, they are “made” for this sort of game.

“They are blessed with qualities like power and speed and size that are necessary. They have great courage and they’re pretty able athletes. They have a lot of natural flair and feel for the game, and ball handling skills.”

Sione Vatuvei

Tongan-born Sione Vatuvei ... teammates with Toetu’u Taufa in the Japan national squad. Photo: Zimbio.com

Peter Bills, writer for The Independent, agrees that Pacific Island players offer a different level of physicality and commitment that is natural to them – but not always found in northern hemisphere players.

“They may not be the greatest trainers in the world and can sometimes be unreliable – Caucaunibuca, Nalaga, Lauaki etc – but when they are on the field their presence is formidable.

“In the modern game, players who can break the defence and then offload the ball are worth their weight in gold because they assist continuity and momentum. Many of these big, physically strong players can do that.”

France’s new star
Raphaël Lakafia, 22, is one of those powerhouse rugby stars. Lakafia’s paternal family is shared between New Caledonia and the Wallis and Futuna Islands and he is finally realising his goal in playing for France.

He says it will be a “dream come true” to belt out La Marseillaise for Les Bleus.

The Biarritz forward comes from a strong sporting pedigree. His father Jean-Paul is a former athletics champion. His brother Pierre-Gilles plays professional rugby for Toulouse.

“Of course it’s true that my father is my benchmark, we exchange a lot and he always has the good word to help me to reassure me and put me back down to earth when necessary. The support of my parents and my brother is something important,” Lakafia says.

Raphaël Lakafia

Raphaël Lakafia ... one of the powerhouse Pacific rugby stars featured in a French magazine. Photo: PMC Archive.

Lakafia is ever-mindful of his roots and says, while he is proud to represent the French, he hopes he’ll have support from outside of Europe.

“I must say that I will be thinking of Wallis and Futuna, as well as New Caledonia, where I hope they watch the match and they will be proud to see me evolve in the French shirt.”

He is known for his clever, explosive style of play. The youngster was the surprise selection in Marc Lièvremont’s squad of 30 – the only uncapped player chosen – and came at the expense of the popular Sébastien “Caveman” Chabal.

“We wanted to include Raphaël Lakafia as soon as possible,” said Lièvremont.

“Over the last five weeks I’ve found him to be intelligent, very at ease with ball in hand and as part of the group. We believe he is ready.”

Full of flair, but erratic?
Despite the association with flair and power, Pacific Island players can often be perceived as erratic or unreliable. That’s a stereotype that Peter Bills sees some truth in.

“But if a good coach can ‘get’ to one of these guys’ minds, then anything is possible. For me, Guy Novés of Toulouse is the best coach in France and he took Rupeni Caucaunibuca when he left Agen and it seemed no-one else wanted him.

“But even in just the second half of last season you could see Novés’ influence on Caucau, who is an erratic performer but has huge flair.”

Raphaël Lakafia arrived at Biarritz weighing 124kg. Out of shape and hampered by injuries, he kept to strict dietary and physical preparations before the season started and lost 11kgs. He then scored five tries in 20 matches to firmly establish himself in the Biarritz side.

Former All Black Sione Lauaki joined French club Bayonne from Clermont Auvergne and is another example of harnessing raw talent and producing spectacular results.

“Yes, he can be erratic and make maddening decisions on the field, like ignoring overlaps. But he can also create tries with his powerful bursts and dexterous ball handling skills,” Bills says.

Samoan tattoos
Manusamoa Tuilagi marked his England debut with a try against Wales last week. The 20-year-old, born in Fatausi-Fogopoa, has called England home since he arrived aged just 13.

The Samoan tattoos sprawled across his right arm belie his now-English accent. His loyalties are divided.

“All the Samoan people are very proud and supportive. It’s not every day you get a Samoan guy playing for England. I’m really proud of where I’m from – Samoa – and what I’m doing right now I’m really proud of.”

Tuilagi was voted the Premiership’s young player of the year and has given the English team some much needed spark for their World Cup campaign. He has four brothers, all of whom have represented Samoa in rugby.

Wynne Gray says the Tuilagi example shows that the trend of Pacific Island players appearing in other teams could continue on a more global scale.

Tapping resources
“You only have to look at England with the Tuilagi brothers. The French have had some Pacific Island players as well, so I think it’s inevitable as unions and agents tap into the player resources in the Islands.”

The Island teams have had to deal with losing many of their best talent. Bills argues that many of the Pacific origin players naturally gravitated to New Zealand or Australia to find work or a better life than in the islands.

“They are offered very good contracts and you cannot blame them for taking them. So although it would be great to see them all staying in the islands, I don’t think that will ever happen. It is frustrating for the island nations, but that’s life.”

While the lure of lucrative contracts may pull players away from their home countries, Pacific rugby fans will be treated to their best athletes going toe-to-toe for the William Webb Ellis trophy, the sport’s grandest prize.

Christopher Chang is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.

1 comment:

  1. Pacific Light (Pingback), 14. August 2011, 6:25
     

    […] Pacific.scoop.co.nz » Globetrotting Pacific rugby stars to light up … While the lure of lucrative contracts may pull Island players away from their home countries, Pacific rugby fans will next month be treated to their best athletes going toe-to-toe for the William Webb Ellis trophy, rugby's grandest […]