Speaking to Stuff in the wake of last week’s announcement by New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey that a Pasifika franchise won’t feature in Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021, Clarke labelled the Kiwi organisation as “arrogant” as he revealed inclusion in an Australian competition may be a more viable option.
Impey said that, of the Pasifika franchises that had expressed interest in joining Super Rugby Aotearoa next season, none had the on-field competitiveness and financial sustainability to thrive in the competition.
That has led Clarke to suggest that a move into the Australian rugby landscape could prove to be more fruitful than trying to persist with breaking into the New Zealand market.
“I do actually think there is merit in it being based out of Australia, rather than New Zealand,” he told Stuff.
“Australia have had a far more open-door policy, and a willingness with Pacific Island teams over the past few years compared to NZ Rugby.
“We’ve had the Fijian Drua play in the NRC [National Rugby Championship], we’ve had various options where Australia have been a little bit more kind, and without wanting to say it, a little bit less arrogant about it.
“It’s a genuine option.”
Clarke pointed to Sydney’s western suburbs as an ideal location to base a Pasifika franchise given the region’s strong Pacific community.
“The thing that New Zealand has done is, ‘It’s their competition, and they are running it’,” he said.
“It’s basically their decision, but I know that in Australia they are little but kinder towards a Pacific Islands team and western Sydney would be just as good a base, and probably better in my mind, than Auckland.”
Clarke’s sentiments echo that of Fijian Drua head coach Senirusi Seruvakula, who, in stark contrast to Impey, told RNZ that he believed a Pasifika side would have held their own in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
“We’ve got a lot of talent here in Fiji and they need a competition like Super Rugby and competition like the NRC [in Australia],” he said.
“That was a big opportunity for the local players to play in those kind of competitive competitions and to be included and into Super Rugby that’s a big bonus for them because of the talent we have here.”
Seruvakula, who guided the Drua to the 2018 NRC title in just their second season in the Australian domestic competition, added that Fiji is significantly disadvantaged by not having a professional franchise.
COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 editions of the NRC and Global Rapid Rugby, which featured the Fijian Latui, and there is no confirmation of either competition returning in 2021.
Having a Fijian presence in whatever form Super Rugby takes next year would go some way to levelling the playing field, but Seruvakula conceded the financial constraints that come with that could prove challenging.
“To be honest it’s going to be hard for Fiji Rugby. To go through and get all those contracts Fiji Rugby needs backing from the government. They need backing from bigger sponsorships from companies to get all those across the board,” he told RNZ.
“If it happens this is a first thing for Fiji Rugby: getting big contracts for big players to play for that Fijian team. It hasn’t happened for the Drua, they only get allowances, for Latui only allowances and for Flying Fijians they’re never contracted, they only get allowances – so to make this happen it’s a new thing for Fiji Rugby.”