MIYAZAKI, 18 Sep - Scott Wisemantel, the England attack coach, takes great pleasure from seeing James Faiva’s name in Tonga’s Rugby World Cup squad.
The countries meet in their opening Pool C match in Sapporo on Sunday and the presence of Faiva is testament to the talent identification "combines" run by World Rugby to help improve the strength in depth of Tier 2 nations.
Faiva (pictured above) impressed in a World Rugby-funded Pacific Islands Combine in Fiji that featured young talent from across the region, earning himself a contract in New Zealand's Mitre 10 competition.
For Wisemantel, Faiva's success proves the initiative is working. "From a personal point of view, it is deeply rewarding to see a guy come in at the start of a week from a village, and at the end of the week he is off to play professional rugby.
"We run the Combines in Fiji and the players come there from Tonga and Samoa. James Faiva, who I have no doubt will be on the bench for Tonga against England at the weekend because he can cover 10 and 12, is one of the players out of the Combine. He had a Mitre 10 contract and has now taken up a contract in Spain (with El Salvador). There is the chance then to bounce to the French league in Pro D2 or Top 14.
"My work with World Rugby, and the Pacific Combine in particular, is to identify domestic players from those islands and give them a chance to get a contract in Mitre 10, Super Rugby and Major League Rugby (United States) so that we can put them on a stage. It aids that country and helps build the base so it is strong and there is financial revenue that goes back to the family."
The roll call of Combine graduates playing at RWC 2019 bears witness to the success of the project. Seven of the players from this year's Pacific Combine are representing their countries in Japan.
In June, Wisemantel was working to identify the next generation of North American Major League Rugby talent with a week-long Combine in Glendale, Colorado. This was another of World Rugby’s initiatives focusing on identifying and developing players aged 18 to 24 and is part of the broader Rugby Americas investment.
Again, it is already bearing fruit. Eight players from the American Combine feature in the RWC 2019 squad lists.
The Pacific Islands Combine involves players who are unsigned but have already been capped by their countries, which removes the possibility of talent being lost to other nations when the player moves abroad.
"Part of the process behind the Combine," says Wisemantel, "is that there is a test series and the players are capped pre-Combine and we then move them around.
"It is a great initiative by World Rugby and we bring the cream from the three nations to Fiji, test them for a week in game and drill situations and see where they can fit in."
But there is another layer to it, he explains. "Say three clubs are looking at a Samoan, Tongan or Fijian, we then find the best fit out of those three clubs.
"It is not about just the money. It is about where is the best fit. For example, if you are a Tongan player, is there a Tongan community or has the club had Tongan players before, so we know there is a support network?
"The last piece of the puzzle is that there are no agents involved. It is a flat cap and the bottom dollar line is the same across all three. That alleviates one-upmanship.
"It is really important that players from those countries appear on the World Cup stage because it means they can get a contract. Once they have got that contract they can financially look after their family, their extended family and the village.
"The clubs and unions encourage players to go because it brings money back to the country."