In reuniting the US and Canada with Fiji, Japan, and Tonga, 2013's revamped Pacific Nations Cup could revive some of Pacific Rim Championship's better features.
The May-June round-robin competition, announced yesterday by the International Rugby Board and participating unions, includes the test game's 11th- to 16th-ranked teams. All are World Cup regulars, most supply players to professional clubs in Europe (and sometimes the Antipodes), and Japan is one of the sport's best markets.
The grouping, which save for Samoa reprises the Pacific Rim of 1999-2001, features those countries most likely to break into world rugby's elite or expand its horizons. Much as it was a 17 years ago, when founded by the foursome of America, Canada, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Debuting one year after the 1995 world championship, which punctured rugby's antiquated amateur ethos, the bygone Pacific Rim was second only to the rise of professionalism itself in terms of impact among developing nations. A regular season outside the European calendar, opportunities for domestic referees and other personnel, consistent TV exposure, and commercial revenue and equity for the participating unions all sprang from the startup league.
In 1999, the competition extended to include the Pacific Islands, an ambition set aside four years earlier because of cost. For Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, joining improved on regional triangulars while compensating for lost access to the Super 12. But the IRB, which pushed the case for expansion by committing to underwrite new expenditure, and in so doing took a 'golden share' in the Pacific Rim's ownership, wasn't prepared to sustain its role. The terms of expansion were the cause of demise.
The North Americans responded by joining England in the 2002 founding of the Churchill Alliance, while in 2003 Dublin sought to amalgamate China, Japan, Russia, and the US into the oddly conceived Super Powers Cup. An uncompetitive grouping with difficult logistics and little shared rugby heritage, the competition replaced China with Canada and Russia with Romania while turning into a knockout based entirely in Japan, before disappearing after 2005.
The Pacific Nations Cup launched in 2006 and has gone through four iterations and seven teams (plus a handful of New Zealand and Australian provinces) in the seven seasons since New Zealand 'A' captured the inaugural affair. Also dependent on monies from Dublin, its staying power owes to the latter-day IRB's more durable commitment to returning World Cup proceeds to member unions.
Samoa captured the 2012 edition. But this season the Manu Samoans will be 'on sabbatical', invited to play a quadrangular against Italy, Scotland, and host South Africa.
At the same time the Pacific Nations was getting underway, the Churchill Cup was persuaded to include more 'A' teams from the established powers. Canada and the US, often uncompetitive, couldn't sell it, leading weary England to withdraw its support after 2011. Last summer, for the first time since 1995, the Eagles played one-offs.
For USARFU, this summer's Pacific Nations not only restores a predictable test schedule that crowns the domestic 15s season, but also sets up a nearly apples-to-apples comparision with previous editions of its national team.
Since 2006 the Eagles have posted a 4-15 record against rival tier 2 countries, for a 21% winning percentage. By contrast, the US posted a 12-16 Pacific Rim record, a 43% winning percentage.
May 25's season-opener against Canada will be a 'non cap' game, played prior to the opening of June's so-called international window: that is, before Europe's professional clubs must release players for test duty. It falls on the same day as the final of USARFU's Elite Cup, the rump Rugby Super League competition.
June's travel schedule is worthy of past Pacific Rims. After Ireland in Houston on the 8th, the US plays Tonga in Salt Lake City on the 15th, and then 2 games in 5 days in Japan: Fiji on the 19th and the Cherry Blossoms on the 23d.
TV programming for the 2013 Pacific Nations tournament has not been determined, according to IRB and union officials. Queries regarding officiating assignments were unanswered.
In Canada, the British Columbian union is reviving the McKechnie Cup among its subunions. Vancouver this weekend travels to Vancouver Island to resume a competition founded in 1896, and dormant since 2004.