Tournament gifts tiny Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga global platform as new documentary tells tale of hardy underdogs
By Alex Pashley
Pinpricks in the deep drink of the Pacific, three archipelago nations embark on an odyssey on Friday to clinch the Webb Ellis Cup from rugby union’s goliaths.
Dwarfed by big countries in everything but brawn, cash-strapped Fiji and Samoa seek to improve on three quarter final finishes, with the former kicking off the event against host England that evening.
Tiny Tonga, meanwhile, is vying to advance from the pool stages for the first time.
The outings over the next six weeks shines a light on the mini-developing states, home to about 1.2 million people.
Amid the hoopla of a major sporting event, it perhaps offers a timely platform to highlight their vulnerability to climate change, months before a crunch UN summit to cap global warming.
A stirring new documentary, Pacific Warriors, champions their imprint on the game.
A fifth of the players at the last tournament were either born or descended from the three islands, with this year the number set to be even higher, director James Marquand tells RTCC.
“We set out to make a film that can make the Tier 1 rugby fans gain an insight into what these countries with these amazing players go through to compete,” he says.
The film includes light-hearted stories of Tonga’s banned plan to send its players onto the field with green hair at the 2007 event, an ad for bookmakers Paddy Power; or Samoan squad members sneaking out to buy 50kg of chicken from KFC on the pretence of a trip to the cinema.
In spite of minimal resources and little preparation in comparison to wealthier Tier 1 countries – the ‘six nations’ (England, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Wales), plus Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – the countries continue to churn out world-class players famed for their explosive power and deft ball-handling.
Hardy seafarers, the Polynesians have endured life on volcanic islands for millennia which prepared them for the hard-hitting sport.
Export of players to foreign leagues, including America’s NFL have meant a stream of remittances, which aid the agriculture and tourism-based economies.
But aside poverty, the region is acutely threatened by runaway global warming, as storms set to grow fiercer and king tides destroy crops and spoil drinking water.
Tonga is the second most vulnerable country to natural disasters, according to the 2013 World Risk Report.
“These people live on great mountain tops higher than the Himalayas. Though they are in the middle of the Pacific ocean, and there’s not much left of the peak,” adds Marquand, a former player at Coventry-based Wasps RFC.
Low-lying neighbours Tuvalu and Vanuatu were pummelled by Cyclone Pam in March. Creeping sea levels have forced Kirabati to buy land in Fiji as an insurance policy if the island becomes inhabitable.
The present threat has given such countries an outsized voice at UN-backed climate talks.
But collective slowness to commit to cuts in carbon emissions could submerge some islands all together.
A Pacific Islands climate forum in September was overshadowed by mocking comments by Australian environment ministers. Weak pledges by New Zealand to rein in emissions have been classed as “a slap in the face” to such dwellers.
A pledged fund to pay for climate adaptation, such as coastal defences and desalinisation devices, is in development, but is years off providing essential funds.
While after appearing light years apart, developed and developing countries have edged closer to a deal on ‘climate compensation’ at the UN summit in Paris in December.
Fiji, Samoa and Tonga tower, relatively speaking, over the likes of Tuvalu, which peaks at 4m.
Those volcanic islands reach 1,300m above sea level. Yet as climate impacts ramp up over tens of World Cups, will that fan further emigration and hobble their capacity to compete?
That hinges on how countries’ mobilise finance for the climate vulnerable and rein in emissions. But before that, there’s a world tournament to be played.
“Their contribution to the sport I think exceeds any other part of the world. To lose them would be unthinkable, an absoluter disaster,” Marquand adds.