Players of Pacific Islands heritage are set to play a prominent role for the Wallabies at this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Twenty years ago, when Australia beat France to win the World Cup for the second time, they had just two players with Polynesian backgrounds in their 30-man squad. Eight years later in the 2007 tournament and they had three out of a total of 30.
Fast forward to today and the green and gold will take a squad of 31 players of which 17, roughly 54%, have heritage from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
They include Fijian-born quartet Marika Koroibete (pictured above), Tevita Kuridrani, Isi Naisarani and Samu Kerevi, Port Moresby-born scrum-half Will Genia and trio Allan Alaalatoa, Scott Sio and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who all have Samoan parents.
It would have been 18 players had controversial fullback Israel Folau, who was born in Sydney to Tongan parents, was not banned for his homophobic social media posts. However, it remains a staggering number that shows just how reliant Australian rugby union has become on Pacific Islander talent.
How has this trend come to pass? For decades, many people from the Pacific have migrated to Australia and New Zealand for employment opportunities and the chance at a better life - maintaining links to their families and culture remains key for them and their children despite living in the likes of Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland.
For Genia, who has a Papua New Guinean father and an Australian mother, he moved to Queensland at the age of 12 for his secondary schooling at Brisbane Boys College. From there he was introduced to rugby union and progressed up the pathway.
In the case of centre Kuridrani, he and his family migrated from Suva to Brisbane at the age of 16. For Christian Leali’ifano, who was born in Auckland to Samoan parents, he moved with his family to Melbourne at the age of seven.
Some were born and raised completely in Australia to parents from the Pacific Islands. That is how Sio, the son of David Sio who represented Samoa at the 1991 World Cup, is in the Wallaby front row. He was born and grew up in Sydney, attending Trinity Grammar School, and going through the ranks of clubs Northern Suburbs and Canberra Vikings.
Others have been encouraged to represent Australia because of their outstanding athletic qualities. Koroibete was poached from rugby league club Melbourne Storm thanks to his impressive try-scoring feats in the NRL. Taniela Tupou, nicknamed the ‘Tongan Thor’ was a schoolboy prodigy in New Zealand who was enticed to come to Australia at the age of 18 and become a Wallaby.
Why the efforts to get these players on board? Talent-wise it is a no-brainer. Genetically they are disposed to rugby union and other physical sports. They bring a unique blend of strength, speed, power, size and toughness that is needed in the 15-man code. They bring a special X-factor.
They come from warrior cultures and are able to bring ferocious intensity on the field, combined with a friendly nature off it. The explosive power demanded in rugby union, as well as the skill set needed, suits them physically.
Playing for Australia puts these players on the world stage, with regular international competition, and in the wider spotlight. The financial incentives, compared to those available representing Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, are also much greater.
Speaking before the Wallabies took on Samoa in a warm-up match last week, prop Allalatoa said: “I've had that opportunity to represent my country and a lot of my family are proud but the second best thing you can do is to play against your team that your family is from. It's exciting to see the number of Pacific Islanders in the team."
Australia’s World Cup squad for Japan is much more multicultural and diverse than teams at the past. While Polynesian Wallaby heroes like Willie Ofahengaue in the 1999 tournament were unique and rare, now they are the norm.
Australian coach Michael Cheika, who is the son of migrants from Lebanon, is proud of the diversity of his team.
“We’re a nation where people come from all over the world to come and live here and they build their allegiances accordingly,” Cheika said.
“Those guys who are from dual nationalities and they choose to play for their new country - I reckon that’s about as patriotic as it gets. It shows how committed they are. Everyone might take a cynical view around that but you talk to the lads — they’ll tell you a different story.”
Australia is not the only nation that will have a strong Pasifika influence at the tournament in Japan. Neighbours New Zealand will have the likes of Fijian Sevu Reece, Samoan Nepo Laulala and Tongan Ofa Tu’ungafasi in their side.
England will call on the Vunipola brothers, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga. France will rely on Fijian Alivereti Raka and Virmi Vakatawa, and Ireland will feature Bundee Aki, who is of Samoan descent. The Cherry Blossoms have a whole host of Pacific power in their team, as do the United States.
The age of the Pacific Islander is upon us.