NZR chair Brent Impey this week confirmed the 2021 competition will be like the five-team Super Rugby Aotearoa format and not feature interested parties which bid to be included along with the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes.
One of those was Moana Pasifika, an Auckland-based bid supported by prominent Pasifika leaders and rugby figures including Williams, who believes it’s a wonderful opportunity to enhance Pasifika rugby after being “left out in the cold” by NZR when the game turned professional in 1995.
“Quite frankly, Pasifika rugby has never really thrived since that time,” Williams told Stuff after celebrating his 70th birthday on Saturday.
“Then, we had Fiji and Samoa making quarterfinals of the World Cup. We were right up there and playing in Super Rugby competitions. 25 years later, we find ourselves in the same position.”
The former All Blacks and Auckland winger is an icon of the game who has long been a pioneer for Pasifika rugby. Born in Auckland but of Samoan descent, he was the first Polynesian player to represent the All Blacks in the 1970s. As a coach, he led Samoa to a famous win over Wales in the 1999 World Cup.
Williams said their bid being rejected for 2021 had “caused great disappointment and grievance among the Pasifika community”.
“We believe the whole community would back this team,” he said, referencing the phenomenal support Tonga’s rugby league team received for the 2017 World Cup, as well as the “colour and enjoyment” of Pasifika fans during the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011.
“There have been concerns from New Zealand Rugby and the franchises that player bases and their fan bases would be eroded.
“I don't believe that. I honestly think it's going to enhance the whole product. A six-team competition has huge appeal to fans but certainly broadcasters, too.”
One of the recommendations of NZR's Aratipu report in July was the “huge desire” for a Pasifika team. However, Impey this week said the governing body was simply not in a position to take unnecessary risks with a Pasifika team because it did not stack up in terms of readiness for 2021.
Williams, a former NZR president, said that suggestion was “extremely disappointing” because he felt a team would be ready to compete and have a feasible financial base to launch from.
“We're confident because there's so much Pasifika talent within the Mitre 10 Cup, the Pacific Islands and Europe.
“We felt ‘let's create an opportunity down here for those players to play Super Rugby’. It would then feed into their national teams and it boosts international rugby and makes it more competitive.”
New Zealand Rugby Players Association boss Rob Nichol on Friday said snubbing a Pasifika team has caused a feeling of “betrayal” in a community deserving of better.
Williams confirmed the association was still negotiating with NZR and Sky and said “we're keeping our fingers crossed” for the decision to be reconsidered, although it's unlikely to be revisited until plans are drawn up for 2022.
Moana Pasifika will still push hard for inclusion in Super Rugby, Williams said, and he believes they have tremendous support from any former player, coach or All Black.
“We've got to get this off ground 25 years after it should have happened,” he added.
“I don't want people to get the impression that I'm jumping ship. I'm a true blue Kiwi of Pasifika descent. Many of the other boys are, too. They just want to see Pasifika get a fair go.
“I've been involved in rugby for a long time and this is too good an opportunity to let slip by. Let's do this, New Zealand.”