By Peter Rees
  It was fitting that Auckland should host the first ever Pacific Rim rugby league championship. From October 17-23, the best league players from around the region converged on New Zealand’s biggest city, acknowledged as the world’s biggest melting pot of Pacific Island cultures.

Sanctioned by the International Rugby League Federation and organized by both the New Zealand Rugby League and Pacific Island Rugby League Association (PIRLA), the aim of the Pacific Rim Championship was to promote awareness of the game in the region with a view to re-establishing international fixtures and full contact with the main nations Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand in the near future. The tournament was in held in conjunction with the biennial Pacific Cup, a tournament established in 1986.

The Pacific Cup has been a regular stepping stone for many aspiring players to higher honours and lucrative contracts playing in Australia or England. High profile players such as current New Zealand Kiwis captain Ruben Wiki have been discovered while playing in the Pacific Cup in previous years. Wiki, who has both Samoan and Maori ancestry will join the New Zealand Warriors in 2005 after spending a decade in Australia with the Canberra Raiders. He is just one of many Pacific Islanders who have gone on to have successful careers from humble beginnings. Many of the best league players in the world are Pacific Islanders. Ali Lauiti’iti, Sonny Bill Williams, Tony Puletua, Willie Mason and Francis Meli are just some of the popular names in the game today. It is not uncommon to see talent scouts from the NRL (Australia) and Superleague (UK) looking specifically for young Pacific Islanders in New Zealand and the Pacific Cup is accepted as the best chance to view the cream of the crop in action.

This year’s combined Pacific Rim and Pacific Cup tournaments saw 12 teams in total vying for the overall titles with venues spread all over greater Auckland from Waitemata out in West Auckland to Ericsson Stadium in Penrose, Central Auckland. The opening games and finals were held at North Harbour Stadium in Albany. The tournaments were co-sponsored by the New Zealand Rugby League, Bartercard, Lion Red and Niu FM.

Participating teams for the Pacific Rim were: Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand Maori, Niue, Samoa and the Cook Islands. The majority

The Niue team lines up for the pre-match national anthem before playing New Zealand Maori in the Pacific Rim. (Photo: Fofoga Esther Setoga-Tuala)

Pacific Rim action between Tonga (red) and Fiji. Tonga won a comfortable margin 56-6.
(Photo: Fofoga Esther Setoga-Tuala)

Auckland Maori (blue/white) plays Samoa in the Pacific Cup at North Harbour Stadium in Albany. Samoa won the match 44-10.
(Photo: Fofoga Esther Setoga-Tuala)

  of the teams were made up of players playing in New Zealand’s Bartercard Cup, the country’s main domestic national league. Other players came from competitions in Australia and the Pacific Islands. Fiji sent a national side comprising mainly locally based players. New Caledonia also made its debut in the Pacific Cup.

The official opening was held as part of the pre-match programme for the Tri-Series test match between Australia and the New Zealand Kiwis on 16 October. A colourful parade of flags representing the participating countries was led into the stadium in front of about 20,000 spectators before kick-off.

After an action packed week of drama and hard fought games, the defending champions Samoa were once again up against Tonga to contest the Pacific Cup final, a rematch of the previous tournament. Samoa prevailed again and was once again crowned the Pacific Champions after beating Tonga in 52-18. Samoa gained earlier victories against New Zealand Maori 44-10 and New Caledonia 76-0. In the final of the Pacific Rim, the Cook Islands proved too good for New Zealand Maori winning by a comfortable margin 46-4.

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