WELLINGTON, (SUDAY STAR TIMES) – They are two of New Zealand rugby’s hottest prospects and they both came here on student visas to attend high school. Fiji’s Waisake Naholo and Tonga’s Malakai Fekitoa were quickly spotted by provincial talent scouts and were soon on a fast track to All Black stardom.
Fekitoa won a scholarship to South Auckland’s Wesley College and after a breakout season attracted the attention of ITM Cup teams. A deal with Auckland came in the nick of time.
“I was going to give up, it was my last year and I was going to go home,” he says.
Naholo, who set the Super 15 alight last year and made the World Cup squad after a “miracle” recovery from a broken leg, also came to study, at Wanganui City College.
At 18 he made Wanganui’s Heartland Championship team and was then scooped by big brother neighbour Taranaki before a 2013 move into Super Rugby with the Blues.
But what of the dozens of other Pacific Island players slugging away at club and Heartland level? They are spread far and wide and are becoming essential to the survival of grassroots rugby.
Ten years ago it would have been rare to see a Pacific Island rugby player in the provincial South Island – now southern clubs can’t get by without them.
Warren Bloxsom, manager of Oamaru Old Boys premier team, said: “About three quarters of the team are Island players. We’re in a six team competition, if we didn’t have them we’d be lucky to have three teams.”
Immigration NZ was unable to provide precise details of how many Pacific Island rugby players have come here – only that more than 130 visas were issued to “footballers” since 2011.
With its Island contingent, Oamaru Old Boys has won the competition five years running.
Bloxsom said the influx began about five or six years ago and many of the players had come from the Islands to complete their schooling.
“They finish school and decide to stay on and play for the clubs around here. But visas are the big problem, we’ve had a few boys have to go home and it’s bloody hard to get them back with Immigration and all that.
“They come over here with different visas, they get jobs and they find out they haven’t got the right visas and they get laid off, I feel sorry for them sometimes.”
Many club players have gone on to represent North Otago, which had no fewer than seven Pacific players last season, plus several from England.
Player profiles on the union’s website show the Islanders are working mainly as labourers and meat workers, although there is also a plumber and a youth worker.
Whanganui is another provincial side that has done well thanks to its Island players, winning the Heartland championship last year with help from five flying Fijians.
Coach Jason Caskey said several of the players were brought out by local clubs looking to strengthen their ranks.
“We had a problem with a couple of them this year getting jobs at the meatworks and places like that, their visas wouldn’t allow them to do that. It’s a bit of a tricky one.
“A couple of them worked at the freezing works but they only did a day and got told unless they could change their visas they couldn’t employ them. They’ve got to be able to survive, it becomes the club’s responsibility I suppose, it makes it a little bit harder.”