Rugby relations: Australia’s best diplomatic asset in the Pacific
6 Mar 2023|

Australia’s strength in its international relations with the South Pacific rests on shared history, common values and cultural affinities for sport, family and religion. Pursuing Australia’s interests in an increasingly contested post-pandemic environment will require all the tools of statecraft, including using Australia’s considerable soft power.

Australia and the nations of the South Pacific share a deep love of sport. Sport doesn’t just build mutual respect and pride; it brings our region together through shared goals, heroes and achievements.

The launch of Australia’s sports diplomacy 2030 strategy was a recognition by the government that Australia has an opportunity to use its sporting strengths to support the sporting aspirations of its Pacific neighbours in a way that generates goodwill—and advances Australia’s national interests.

Rugby union is the Pacific’s sport of choice.

Rugby dominates conversations and the media and is played on every surface of lush tropical grass available on the islands. Simon Raiwalui, a former Fijian rugby captain and current coach of the Fijian men’s national team, the Flying Fijians, once said: ‘It’s the blessing and the curse of Pacific rugby. You can pick up a touch rugby union game on the street and you’ll find potential national team players.’

Australia’s kinship with the Pacific through rugby union is a diplomatic asset that other global actors and sporting codes cannot currently match. Players of Pacific heritage will have a prominent role with the Wallabies at this year’s Rugby World Cup in France—the third biggest global sporting event. Many Pacific rugby fans support the Wallabies and engage with our teams through social media, and most have an Australian club they follow with fervour.

Rugby is deeply intertwined with Pacific nations’ political and military elite. It has been customary for prime ministers and even kings, as is the case in Tonga, to simultaneously hold executive positions in their country’s rugby union governing body.

In Fiji, former prime minister Frank Bainimarama was also president of Fiji Rugby Union, and he personally appointed Fiji’s deputy armed forces commander, Humphrey Tawake, as Fiji Rugby’s chairman. New Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka represented Fiji in rugby union, and it is expected he will also become an office holder in Fiji Rugby Union.

During a joint press conference with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong on the margins of February’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ retreat, Rabuka quoted Nelson Mandela, saying: ‘Sport … has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.’ He told Wong that while Fiji and Australia were bound together by geography, ‘it is sport that brings our people together’. Rabuka also reaffirmed that Fiji Rugby wanted to strengthen its partnership with Rugby Australia and the Australian government.

In 2021, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Rugby Australia entered the Australian Pacific Rugby Union Partnership under DFAT’s multimillion-dollar PacificAus Sports program. The scheme’s stated aim is to create opportunities for Australian and Pacific athletes to train, play and grow together. Australian diplomats in the Pacific are also keenly aware that rugby union opens doors and is a very useful tool in achieving strategic policy outcomes.

In 2022, the Australian government, backed by Rugby Australia, was a key player in enabling Fiji’s entry into the southern hemisphere’s premier professional rugby tournament. Australia’s financial support helped secure the entry of a men’s team into Super Rugby Pacific and a women’s team into Australia’s Super W competition. Members of Fiji’s elite and Australian diplomats are now ever-present figures at Fijian home matches, where the PacificAus Sports logo dominates on-field advertising.

Rugby Australia has been tasked by DFAT with delivering a series of sports diplomacy activities across the Pacific to amplify the PacificAus Sports message of ‘friends through sport’. Rugby Australia staff, players and coaches, along with colleagues from Oceania Rugby who partner with Rugby Australia on key projects, regularly visit the Pacific to support diplomatic events, deliver coaching clinics and contribute to sport-for-development initiatives such as Get into Rugby PLUS, a flagship program that pairs the learning of life skills with rugby to promote positive behaviour and gender equality and to prevent violence against women, girls and boys.

To promote gender equality across the region, DFAT directs its PacificAus Sports partners to provide opportunities for Pacific women and girls to take their places as champions in both sport and their communities. Using the common language of rugby, PacificAus Sports is arguably succeeding where previous DFAT gender investments have stalled.

The success of the Fijiana Drua is transforming gender norms on and off the field. After winning the 2022 Super W competition in their inaugural season, the Fijiana returned home as household names and heroes. Provincial chiefs and villages greeted the players with traditional welcome ceremonies and sevusevu, a cultural tradition that had until then been reserved for men only. A record number of women’s and girls’ teams are now showcasing their talents across the Pacific. The CEOs of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa rugby unions have reported unprecedented growth and community support for women playing rugby. In Fiji, schoolgirls’ rugby has grown from 12 to 81 teams—a remarkable feat, given that just months earlier many female players faced strong resistance from their communities for wanting to play rugby.

Australia is not the only country seeking to capitalise on the Pacific’s love of the sport. China has become more adept at using the subtle areas of cooperation in the Pacific traditionally dominated by Australia. In 2019, Beijing gave Solomon Islands a $70 million grant to construct a new stadium capable of hosting this year’s Pacific Games. China has also been working quietly with the Samoan government to redevelop sporting venues across the capital Apia.

Australia responded to China’s stadium diplomacy with its own $17 million grant to help Solomon Islands host the Pacific Games. The funding will assist with the refurbishment of school dormitories, which will be used for athlete accommodation. After the games, the dormitories will be repurposed for senior school students from remote villages who need board in Honiara.

The depth of Australia’s presence in the Pacific sporting landscape is something that China can’t match with surface-level investments. The people of Tonga still celebrate the anniversary of their team defeating the Wallabies 16 to 11 in Brisbane in 1973. Fijians reminisce proudly about the spectacular rugby match in which their players flung overhead passes and made clever switches of attack that bewildered the Australians at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1952. Our shared sporting history is a great equaliser that brings our region together.

However, demand for sports infrastructure is mounting in the Pacific. This is particularly true in Fiji, which is now the permanent home of men’s and women’s Super Rugby teams and two world-class, medal-winning international rugby sevens teams. A visit to Fiji to experience the electric atmosphere of a live rugby game is on the bucket list of most fans. However, Fiji lacks a modern stadium capable of welcoming larger crowds for regular international events.

Fijian leaders would undoubtedly welcome sports infrastructure investment from Australia. Modern grounds and training facilities would ensure a more equitable playing field between Australian and Pacific teams. The flow-on economic benefits from sports tourism would greatly assist Fiji’s post-pandemic economic recovery. The refurbishment of stadium facilities would be a low-cost, high-visibility win for an international donor seeking to increase its presence in the Pacific.

Australia is embarking on a decade at the centre stage of world sport with rugby playing the starring role. Australia will host the 2027 men’s Rugby World Cup and 2029 women’s Rugby World Cup. Rugby sevens will also be played at the 2026 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.

A golden decade of rugby will create a significant opportunity for Australia to build on its PacificAus Sports success and invest in pathways and infrastructure that will deliver increased opportunities for Pacific nations to participate—and benefit economically—as world sport descends on the region.

In rugby union, it’s said you should always play to your advantage. With the right investment, the government can leverage this once-in-a-generation opportunity and leave a legacy for Australian diplomacy, rugby and PacificAus Sports in the Pacific.