NZR backdown on Pacific stars ban

Danny Kayes scores a try for Samoa in a sevens match against Chile. Photo: Getty Images
Danny Kayes scores a try for Samoa in a sevens match against Chile. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealand Rugby has been forced into a major backdown after an investigation by the New Zealand Herald found it was trying to ban players with Pacific Island links from next week's national sevens tournament in Rotorua.

The dispute also involves an apparent admission by a NZR official that it is uncertain of the legality of trying to coerce players out of Pacific Island teams in return for allowing them to play for their provinces.

And one email shown to the Herald as it investigated the situation this week reveals the apparent fear the under-pressure New Zealand sevens programme is feeling in the re-shaped international scene.

The players, all New Zealanders according to the players' union, wanted the bans overturned with one considering legal action if he remained sidelined.

Last night most got their way after hurried NZR meetings, with the Rugby Players' Association (RPA) revealing 14 out of 16 applications by men and women who play for Pacific Island teams were now approved for Rotorua. It is believed more than half were initially turned down, with around five of those involving Samoan men.

There were conspiracy claims in some quarters that the bans were a reprisal against Samoan coach Sir Gordon Tietjens, who criticised NZ Rugby after his side failed at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The RPA took another view: that the high performance tail had been allowed to wag the NZR executive's dog.

This is because the initial sevens bans were at odds with the Super Rugby attitude, where each New Zealand team is allowed three Pacific Island players as of right.

The RPA got involved three days ago, with its boss Rob Nichol telling the Herald: "We are talking about players who were born and bred here in New Zealand. These are players who for whatever reason have ended up representing other countries but they are loyal New Zealanders."

The RPA took the matter to the rugby top brass, chief executive Steve Tew and his No2 Neil Sorenson.

The Samoan resistance was led by Bay of Plenty's Danny Kayes, who is understood to have considered taking legal action if he was not allowed to play.

Kayes bluntly told NZR: "I am about as BOP as they get — the fact that I have been denied to represent my province is a kick in the guts and it doesn't seem right."

Kayes, whose mother is Samoan, played four tournaments for Samoa early last year but is not among their newly contracted 22 sevens players.

The 23-year-old, a civil engineer, pointed out to NZ Rugby he was born in Tauranga and had lived in Papamoa most of his life. He was reluctant to talk publicly, saying it was daunting taking on the national rugby body.

Nichol said NZ Rugby had made a clear blunder which he put down to the sevens high performance unit — which is determined to win Olympic gold and world series crowns — holding too much sway.

"Mistakes do happen, but they don't normally come out in public," Nichol said.

"It was about the high performance unit's lens on the world. And we still have things to sort out moving forward. It was disappointing it happened so close to the tournament — it was such a no-brainer.

"Once they changed it for Danny, they had to treat everyone like that."

The RPA is still vigorously pursuing one case where the ban stands. But with the angst-ridden 2017 Rugby League World Cup still fresh in the memory, it seems rugby has largely avoided a crisis stemming from the tangled sporting relationships in this part of the world.

The finer detail is this: Under the provincial sevens rules for men and women, each squad is allowed one player who is not New Zealand-eligible. But approval is still at NZ Rugby's discretion, which is where the dispute arose.

In one email, Chad Tuoro from the sevens high performance team, stated his role was to approve those "we feel have little or no risk to our national teams competing on the world stage".

On offering the provincial carrot to players who quit allegiance to another country, Tuoro stated: "I am not sure of where that sits from a legal perspective, and even if we were allowed to ask players for this."

On the threat posed by teams such as Samoa, Nichol said the RPA believed it was up to New Zealand's national sides to rise to international challenges, not inhibit them.

Limited Super Rugby and provincial sevens dispensations recognised that, while safeguarding against teams being stacked with imports.

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