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Pacific rugby referees are being told they probably won't officiate at a World Cup until 2031 or later, unless something drastically changes at World Rugby.
In 1995, 'Etoni Tonga was running the line as an assistant referee at the historic Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
The Tongan wasn't out in the middle of the field, and after that tournament, no official from the Pacific has got even close.
"We were assistant referees, we were on the sidelines. After '95 the game went professional, they got rid of the referees that were up and coming, and just contracted the new ones.
"From there, they've never looked in the Pacific Islands anymore," Tonga says.
Pacific referees have made it to the top in Sevens Rugby, but there's very little experience in international 15-a-side games, simply because Pacific nations aren't included in elite international 15-a-side tournaments.
Pacific nations are not included in the major international tournaments such as Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship or the Six Nations - and referees suffer just as much as players. They have to travel overseas to get a look-in.
Koli Sewabu is the National Development Manager for the Fiji Rugby Union and has his five top referees in a high performance unit. They want to eventually get to the World Cup.
He has a mix of men and women and says diversity is important.
"If you look at the composition of refs in the World Cup, a lot of them are the ones who are competing in top level rugby, and there's not many of them, it's just spread between a number of countries."
Tui Komiti is a Samoan Sevens referee and manages Samoan referees. He also has five top referees in his high performance unit, but says they have a mountain to climb.
"Pacific referees will never get a chance to referee a tier one test match, unless you reside in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa," Komiti says.
'Etoni Tonga's refereeing days are over and now he's the new chair of the Tonga Rugby Union Referees Association.
He says he feels the goalposts keep changing.
"They keep on changing the rules for us… Eight years ago we had five or six young referees but… something fell apart here internally which wasn't followed through, so it was a bit disappointing."
Are Pacific referees too soft with enforcing rules?
Questions have been asked about whether referee bias accounts for yellow and red cards against Pacific players at this year's tournament.
At this Rugby World Cup, 17 yellow cards have been issued so far – five of them earned by Samoa alone.
That has led some to hint there might be some bias against Pacific players at the tournament. Of the 12 referees, there are two Englishmen, four Frenchmen, a Welshman, a South African, two New Zealanders and two Australians.
But the man tasked with training and developing Pacific referees says it's not bias.
Oceania Rugby trainer Talemo Waqa says the Pacific referees he's training are actually too soft on judging ill-discipline.
He's just carried out training in Cook Islands with a group of top Pacific referees - and played a series of videoed incidents, asking them whether they would give a just a penalty, or a yellow card, or a red card.
"Surprisingly we are very soft on it. Most of our referees, when it's supposed to be a yellow, they give a penalty, when it's supposed to be a red they give a yellow.
"Our players are then refereed by what we call a soft approach. They are not refereed as tough as New Zealand referees do, Australian referees do, Europe referees do."
Should World Rugby do more for the Pacific?
Past and current Pacific rugby referees say even if bias is not the problem, there are still plenty of hurdles to jump for Pacific unions and their referees.
Talema Waqa says the Australian and New Zealand unions do give opportunities in their domestic competitions for Pacific referees, but it will take time to develop those referees for a Rugby World Cup.
The Pacific referees Checkpoint spoke to are getting on in age, and they say World Rugby is looking for younger referees to invest in.
Eva Mafi is a Tongan Sevens Rugby referee and says it's too late for him to break into the 15-a side game.
"A little bit disappointed… I was thinking I'm doing well and a few coaches talked to me about my progress, and I was trying hard, training locally, but once there's no chance, that's it."
Koli Sewabu from Fiji says the problem is that young people want to play the game rather than blow the whistle, and says his current crop are overworked already on home soil.
"It's one referee for six games every Saturday. It's taken a toll on them physically, and emotionally as well. So what we've done is tried to do a lot of recruitment over the last few months."
Tui Komiti says World Rugby could and should do more to help the Pacific.
"World Rugby should invest in terms of assisting that exposure of referees, help out with financial support – sending these referees outside of the Pacific."
World Rugby and other national rugby bodies were asked for comment but declined while the Rugby World Cup is ongoing.
Talemo Waqa says Argentine and Japanese referees will have a smoother way because they are involved in those international tournaments.
And he has a wake-up call for those hoping to see Pacific referees out on the field at the next tournament.
"I don't see any referee from the Pacific in the next four years, not the next World Cup. Argentina maybe. Pacific - I'll go for 12 to 16 years," he says.
That would be Rugby World Cup 2031 or 2035.
SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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