The Chairman, Directors, CEO and Senior Executives of the Australian Rugby Union,
Representatives of the Australian Government, Peter Horne and Bruce Cook of World Rugby,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula Vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.
This is an important day for Fiji and for every Fijian rugby fan. And I’m delighted as Prime Minister to be here in Sydney as we announce that from 2017, Fiji will be included in the Australian Rugby Union national competition.
On behalf of the Fiji Rugby Union, my Government and the Fijian people, I want to thank World Rugby and especially the Australian Rugby Union for opening the door for the Fiji Rugby Union to field a team in your tournament. It is a huge step forward for Fijian rugby and I know that every Fijian will share my excitement at this development and the possibilities it opens up for our players and for our nation.
I very much appreciate the way that World Rugby has driven this program and provided the necessary funding to support the participation of the Fijian Team. I wish to acknowledge Peter Horne, in particular, for his untiring effort to push this initiative through. And of course, I want to say vinaka vakalevu to the ARU Board and Management for giving us this opportunity. And especially Ben Whitaker for all his assistance in making this dream a reality.
We had hoped, of course, that there was a possibility of Fiji fielding a team in the competition this year. Because that moment can’t come soon enough for every Fijian rugby fan. But we understand and appreciate that our entry has had to be deferred until next year to allow the parties to sort out the details.
My Government had committed about $300,000 in the 2016 Budget for the Fiji’s Team participation in the Tournament this year; But since that has been pushed back to 2017, I’m pleased to reconfirm our funding commitment.
Fiji will be the 9th team in the tournament, which starts from August 2017. Fiji will be playing four away games in Australia and more importantly for us, four home games in Fiji. And it goes without saying that all Fijians will be eager and excited to come out in numbers and support their team during these home games.
Our local provincial competition will be completed in July with the NRC starting in August. And I am certain our local based players will be looking forward to participating in the tournament for the first time. And being exposed to a semi-professional rugby environment where they will be contracted and paid for their services.
We strongly believe our participation will create new pathways for our players, coaches and technical staff and most importantly, provide a new opportunities for our players to play professionally in international competition and tournaments.
Friends, this is another important milestone for our nation and especially for the development and progress of Rugby and sports in Fiji. In July, Fiji hosted our first ever Super Rugby match at the ANZ Stadium in Suva. And in doing so, we demonstrated to the world that we have the facilities and the capability to stage such an event.
We also have the unrivaled enthusiasm of our people, who are very proud to have been able to successfully host such a prestigious event in Fiji.
This year, we have also hosted the Oceania Volleyball, the Oceania Swimming and the Oceania Weightlifting Competitions. And just last week, we also successfully hosted the Fiji International Golf tournament at Natadola Bay, with some of the world’s finest golfers taking part. Into its third year, the Fiji International is now part of the European Tour. Fiji is already well and truly on the global map as a sporting destination.
As you all know, in August, our World Champion Rugby Sevens Team team brought back Gold from Rio in our first ever medal win at a summer Olympics. As you also know, the whole country went mad. It was a wonderful moment that none of us will ever forget. And certainly, no further proof is needed of the special place that rugby has in the hearts of every Fijian.
Friends, my Government has been at the forefront of the development and growth of sport in Fiji. Not only by ensuring that sport is adequately funded and that we can secure the proper technical expertise. But also by securing international standard events such as this one for the enjoyment of our people and to set a proper standard for local competition. I can assure you all that this commitment will continue.
As you all know, today’s announcement is the culmination of a long campaign by Fiji and the other Pacific Island countries to get more opportunities to compete on the international stage. We have tended to see ourselves as the poor cousins of rugby, especially compared to our larger neighbours, Australia and New Zealand. And I have to say that we have sometimes felt forgotten, so much so that many of our best players have left Fiji and gone outside the region to play professional rugby and some have even adopted countries when they would have much preferred to stay at home to play professionally. We of course are also aware of the exploitation of our very talented players.
This initiative does redress some of the current imbalances and provide our players with more opportunities and, an easing into professional rugby. So it is a good day for them, as well as for our nation as a whole. More of course needs to be done and my Government will work with FRU, ARU and World Rugby to create more opportunities not only for and in Fiji but for our other island neighbours.
Friends, to conclude, Fiji very much looks forward to our participation in the tournament next year. It’s going to be a wonderful spectacle for rugby fans in Fiji and Australia. Our boys will be playing their hearts out and I put everyone on notice today that they will be playing to win.