Some call it modern-day blackbirding. Australia stopped using Pacific islanders in sugar fields 95 years ago but they are back, on the playing fields this time carrying the hopes and dreams of four of the six nations competing in this weekend's Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
One fifth of all World Cup players are of Pacific island background, from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Pacific islanders are playing for the Wallabies (seven), All Blacks (eight), England and Wales (one each). The United States field seven, Japan three.
What caused such a brawn drain?
The rise of the islanders is a happy confluence of supply and demand: In Australia, the private school systems that once served as player humidicribs have let the side down with sport taking a backseat to academic success; New Zealand has been swamped by Polynesian immigration and they have forced their way into national teams by talent and sheer numbers; the globalisation of rugby has suddenly made Pacific islanders bigger, stronger and faster than almost any other peoples, the men of the match.
Robert Dewey, assistant professor of history at DePauw University in Indiana, has made a study of rugby in the Pacific. He says the sport is segregated and played outside formal coaching structures , developing an exciting style of ''our own game'' that revitalised rugby across the world.
Rugby, he says, was appropriated as a ''national game'' among Tongans, Samoans and indigenous Fijians.
''Early rugby played an important role in expressions of village pride and masculinity, partly because so many of the traditional institutions into manhood had disappeared,'' he says. ''In more recent times, cast in the role of perpetual underdog, the successes and occasional upsets provided by island teams on the pitch went a long way to popularising rugby at home, beyond the elite groups which had initially played the game … It became the national game as well as a catalyst for regional connections.''
Rugby was borne into the Pacific by God and Queen Victoria.
Marist Brothers took the game to Samoa, while in Fiji, colonial administrators established a ''Native Union'' in 1913 that continued until World War II when local teams started to outnumber colonial sides and they ran out of grounds. In Tonga, locals returning from Newington College in Stanmore introduced the code but acceptance was boosted when royal patronage arrived thanks to the interest of Prince Tugi and then his son, subsequently King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.
Pacific islanders proved so talented on the rugby field that there are some who believe this might be the reason they were put on Earth.
If African DNA travelled across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the US to produce the world's best sprinters and boxers, some football tragics believe it is not too big a stretch to believe the Polynesian DNA must have started out of south-east Asia three millennia ago to embrace its manifest destiny - rugby.
Yet, the powerful nations of the Pacific resisted Polynesian domination, even after rugby union embraced professionalism and abandoned amateur status in 1995.
Professor Dewey says the truth is that the island nations are too small and too poor to be treated as equals.
''Lacking television revenues and significant sponsorship, barred from the executive decision-making, excluded from the repeated expansion of what became the Super 14 competition … increasingly in debt and on the wrong end of lopsided score lines against the game's top teams, Pacific rugby's administrators faced a bleak set of circumstances.''
He says Pacific administrators were nearly unanimous in allowing players to seek their fortunes overseas, even if it meant donning Wallaby or All Blacks jerseys. They flooded the ranks of rugby league and even started showing up in US gridiron teams. Over the years the likes of Lote Tuqiri, Joe Rokocoko, Sione Lauaki, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Chris Masoe, Jerry Collins and Willie Ofahengaue left their island homes. Tonight, Samoan-born centre Manu Tuilagi takes the field for England against France. His brother Alesana represented Samoa until they were knocked out but usually plays for Leicester Tigers in England.
How long before an Island of Origin series?
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