By Tala Simeti and Jess Marinaccio, all photos of rugby games by Jess Marinaccio
There’s a familiar narrative when it comes to writing about Pacific peoples and rugby: talented players from Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji seek opportunities to play professionally in places like New Zealand, Australia, and Japan and then provide remittances to their families and home countries. It’s tempting, then, to see sport as just a vehicle for Pacific players to meet an economic need in a globalising world.
But rugby is currently played competitively in most Pacific countries and territories, although many participating nations do not produce professional athletes who play overseas. Tuvaluan rugby is an excellent example of this because the international movements of Tuvaluans, especially when they relocate for higher education, make the sport as transnational as Tongan, Samoan, and Fijian cases. Yet, the unique contexts of Tuvaluan rugby also differentiate it from current research on Pacific sport, which emphasises the economics of competitive play.
Playing for Island
Tuvalu did not adopt rugby when it was colonised by Great Britain in 1892, distinguishing it from other Pacific nations that started playing because of Western colonisation or imperialism. The Tuvalu Rugby Union was officially founded in 2007 (almost 30 years after Tuvalu became independent in 1978), although visitors to Tuvalu in the 1980s and 90s report that rugby sevens (seven players per team) was already played at that time. Currently, Tuvalu has rugby sevens and fifteens, but only men play and rugby union is the only code.
One of the most interesting parts of Tuvaluan rugby is how teams are formed: most are aligned with the geography of the archipelagic nation. Tuvalu is composed of nine islands/atolls: Nanumea, Nanumaga, Niutao, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, Nukulaelae, and Niulakita. Two of these (Niutao and Niulakita) are considered the same community, so Tuvalu officially recognises eight islands.
Most rugby players in Tuvalu live on the capital Funafuti, but because all of Tuvalu’s islands are represented there, teams are usually formed by people from the same island. (Because of low numbers or interest, Nui doesn’t have a team and Nukulaelae only plays sevens.) There are two club teams that are not formed based on island affiliation (Tubamba and Niuauta), but island teams are most common and play during all tournaments, while non-island teams don’t play during celebrations of Tuvalu’s national identity like Independence Day. For these celebrations, it would be inappropriate to have players from a certain island compete against the team representing their island (which might happen if non-island teams were allowed to play). This means that, in Tuvalu, rugby frequently celebrates identity ties to specific islands or atolls.
To give some examples, during the first Tuvalu Games—a tournament where islands compete in rugby, football, volleyball, and track and field—the smallest island in Tuvalu, Nukulaelae, emerged the overall victor. This led the island of Nukulaelae to invite all participating Nukulaelae sports teams to the atoll for a major feast held in their honour. Additionally, although the names of Tuvaluan rugby teams are somewhat random, they clearly reflect island affiliations: the Nanumea team is called the Lakena Knights, which combines the name of an islet in the Nanumea atoll with a common international mascot; the Nukufetau team is the Tamanuku Eagles—Tamanuku means “the children of Nukufetau.”
Although the fourth smallest sovereign country in the world, Tuvalu is also highly creative when hosting domestic rugby practices and matches, which has circumvented limitations on physical capacity. The country has one sports field—the Tuvalu Sport Ground—which is located in Funafuti. High demand means that not all of Tuvalu’s rugby teams can regularly practice on the field, so teams normally practice in set spots on Tuvalu’s airstrip. The use of the strip as a multi-purpose practice ground (where you can also find football and volleyball) underscores how Tuvaluans continually innovate in circumstances others might dismiss as too challenging to navigate.
Tuvalu’s rugby tournaments also highlight creativity in the face of limited resources. During tournaments, referees are usually players recruited from teams not participating in a certain game. This is possible because at least one player on each island team is a qualified referee trained in Funafuti by World Rugby. Like the use of Tuvalu’s airstrip as a practice field, this protocol shows how Tuvaluans innovate so that competitive play is possible even without professional referees.
Playing for Country and Oceania
There is also a strongly international element to Tuvaluan rugby. Tuvalu’s first national team was introduced in 2007 for the Pacific Games in Apia, and Tuvalu also participates in the Oceania Rugby Sevens Championship. However, Tuvalu’s national team has never placed high enough in Pacific regional competitions to progress to other tournaments like the Hong Kong Sevens. Unlike Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, cultivating professional rugby players is not a focus in Tuvalu, especially given the state of training facilities there.
Although Tuvalu’s national team is not yet competitive and few professional rugby players are Tuvaluan, this does not mean that Tuvaluans don’t play rugby abroad—rather than playing professionally, they typically do so in amateur teams. Tuvaluans who migrate overseas or study abroad in places like Samoa, Fiji, Taiwan, and the UK actively participate in university teams and various other club teams.
For example, in Taiwan, Tuvaluan scholarship students play for the Taipei Baboons, which is sponsored by the bar Brass Monkey. Because many Baboons players are from the Pacific (including New Zealand and Australia), they also form their own Oceania Rugby Team to compete against non-Pacific teammates or other teams. None of this is done in the hope of progressing to the professional level and most people participate simply out of passion for rugby.
Both in country and overseas, Tuvaluans play rugby for the love of the sport and are often motivated by a sense of belonging to home, whether that be island identification in a domestic setting or national/regional identification overseas. Unlike typical stories we hear about the global flows of Pacific players, Tuvaluan participation in rugby is rarely driven by the hope of going pro—it’s fuelled by something perhaps much deeper.
Tala Simeti is a Master’s student in Development Economics at City, University of London. His current research focuses on the economics of migration and health in the Pacific. Tala was also formerly the coach of the Nukufetau men’s rugby team in Tuvalu. Jess Marinaccio is a PhD candidate in Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington (NZ). Jess’s doctoral research focuses on performative cultural diplomacy between Tuvalu and Taiwan but she has also written extensively on how indigeneity (and diplomacy) is conceptualised throughout the Pacific.