Fiji backing the first step towards NRL dream
Petero Civoniceva describes the Federal Government's backing for NRL pre-season matches in the Pacific and a Fiji team in NSW's Intrust Super Premiership as "life changing".
Entry into the Intrust Super Premiership would be considered the first step in the Fijian dream of earning a spot in the Telstra Premiership.
With more players of the calibre of Viliame Kikau (Fiji), Nene Macdonald (PNG), Solomone Kata (Tonga) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Samoa) set to emerge, the increased commitment to the Pacific could change the game.
For the first time, two NRL teams will travel to Papua New Guinea to play a pre-season fixture in 2020.
The following year, another two NRL clubs will play in Fiji, with St George Illawarra believed to be interested in being one of them after previously considering taking a premiership match to the 30,000-capacity National Stadium in Suva.
In 2022, there will be a pre-season match in either Samoa or Tonga, while there is also the possibility of the Cook Islands and Vanuatu being added to the schedule if the NRL's Pacific Outreach Program is expanded to those nations.
Civoniceva predicted sell-out crowds wherever the NRL fixtures are played in the Pacific. It is intended those matches will be televised in the country hosting them as well as Australia.
The funding for the pre-season fixtures - believed to be worth about $3 million over three years - will enable two NRL teams to spend four days in a Pacific nation helping to deliver programs about respect, inclusion and the importance of education and health before playing a pre-season fixture.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also announced financial backing for the bid led by Civoniceva to have a Fiji team enter the NSW Cup in 2020.
The Federal Government's support will cover the costs of travel for Australian-based NSW Cup teams to play the Fiji side.
“That is massive for us and it obviously helps our bottom line in terms of expenses so we are very, very appreciative of that support from the Federal Government," Civoniceva said.
“For young kids from the villages who will get the chance to join a professional training set up, it will magnify the natural talent that we all know kids in Fiji have by putting them on the big stage in the NSW Cup and expose them to interest from an NRL side. That could be life-changing.
“That is the aim of this whole development pathway and hopefully we will see the next Suliasi Vunivalu or Viliame Kikau or Apisai Koroisau, because there will be more kids in Fiji who will start to dream big about playing in the NRL now that they have got a real shot at it through the NSW Cup."
The NSWRL's Intrust Super Premiership and QRL's Intrust Super Cup competitions are considered pathways for expansion into the NRL, with Papua New Guinea, Redcliffe, Ipswich and Central Queensland all keen to step up from the Queensland Cup, while Perth may follow Fiji into the NSW Cup.
The Labor Party declared its support for a PNG team in the NRL at December's national conference in Adelaide.
The PNGRL has launched a secondary schools competition this year to develop junior talent, with hopes the Port Moresby-based Hunters can be promoted from the Queensland Cup to the NRL in 2023.
The inclusion of teams from Papua New Guinea and Fiji in second-tier competitions, with the aim of eventually joining the Telstra Premiership mirrors developments in the northern hemisphere, where Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique are trying to win promotion to Super League.
Red Star Belgrade, which is part of the famous Serbian sporting club whose football team won the 1991 European Cup, made their Challenge Cup debut on the weekend, with former Melbourne Storm junior Darcy Etrich one of three non-locals in the 22-man squad.
Red Star's ambition is also to eventually join Super League, while a New York-based team is awaiting admission to Britain's lower tiers in 2020.