Is there a place in International sport for Oceania?
This questions has been murmured for years, but is it time that the World’s sporting bodies seriously looked at Oceania, and considered a better option for qualification to World Cup Finals and Olympic Games?
First of all let us look at Rugby Union where many of the nations in Oceania are extremely strong. When it comes to this sport there is no doubt that there is a place for Oceania; it is Asia that is the weak link in the sport. If we look at the teams from Oceania vying for a place at the Rugby World Cup in Japan 2019 there are some heavy hitters: Australia, Cook Islands, Tonga, Western Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, and World Champions New Zealand.
Yet New Zealand and Australia do not have to participate in the qualifiers as they finished in the Top 12 at the previous World Cup; something one would expect at every World Cup. In July this year at the Pacific Nations Cup, Fiji and Tonga also qualified.
Samoa and Tahiti will have to go through the cross-regional repechage to see if they qualify in June 2018. Tahiti playing the winner of the Asian Qualifiers and Samoa play the winner of Round 6 of the European qualification process. The winner of that game will qualify for the World Cup, the winner of the Tahiti match will progress to the Repechage competition. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
Incredibly if both teams were to win their games and qualify then only one team from the region would have missed out on playing at the finals, the Cook Islands. It seems therefore a very long-winded affair to reach such an outcome. One cannot help thinking that Rugby should seed teams from the previous world cups and then play global qualifiers, with the top teams in various pools qualifying, ensuring that the best teams are competing at their showcase event.
If we look at two other sports, Hockey and Football, Oceania has witnessed some unbelievably high scoring games. In the recent Oceania Cup hockey competition Australia’s women’s team defeated Papua New Guinea 23-0, while New Zealand’s Black Sticks won 33-0. In the men’s competition it was 30-0 to the Kookaburras and 19-0 to the Black Sticks men.
Then who can forget Australia’s Socceroos when they played in Oceania defeating American Samoa 31-0 in 2001. In the qualifiers for Russia 2018 the biggest victories in Oceania were an 8-0 win by Papua New Guinea over Samoa, a 7-0 win by New Caledonia over Samoa and a 6-1 win by New Zealand over the Solomon Islands. New Zealand have not overpowered sides in the region the way Australia did in the past, but they have, as you would expect proved the strongest team.
There are many who feel that Oceania and Asia should be merged. Just as they have two rounds of qualifiers in the football before the all important final qualification pool, would it not benefit the game as a whole to have those nations drawn in pools with the teams from Asia who play in their first round, the likes of Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Yemen. Asia had two pools of six teams, Oceania had one pool of four, with the remaining seven teams of the eleven that make up Oceania progressing through to the next round. Slipping those four teams into a pool with the Asian teams would make up a pool of sixteen teams. This could be split into four pools of four, and the top teams could progress to the second round.
Here Asia currently has 40 teams.These teams are currently split into 8 pools of five. If we added the 11 teams from Oceania who received a bye and the four teams that topped the Asia/Oceania first round then you would have 55 teams and could have eleven pools of five teams.
The third round of qualification in Asia saw the top two teams from the previous round progress. Now with more groups it would be just the top team that progresses, and the best runner-up. That would mean you could continue with the two pools of six and the top two automatically qualifying. The two third-placed teams could play off for the fifth spot which would be created by having Oceania play as part of Asia; the region would have a solid argument for another World Cup Finals berth with two regions combining.
When it comes to Hockey ever since the Oceania Cup was first contested in the men’s game back in 1999, Australia has won every edition and New Zealand have been runners up. In the women’s competition Australia has won seven titles and New Zealand three. Only these teams have contested the final.
Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands all played in Round one of the Hockey World League competition, with Fiji going through to the second round. In the Asian Round one Brunei, China, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam played off with two teams progressing. Once again could these teams not play each other?
If they did Australia and New Zealand could also move into the Asian competition; they could still compete for the Trans Tasman Trophy, but the Oceania cup could become like the Ranfurly Shield in New Zealand Rugby. The team holding the trophy would defend it whenever they played another team from Oceania.
Having Australia and New Zealand playing in Asia would raise the bar for the sport in the region and also takeaway some of the predictability of some tournaments, and also would see new rivalries emerge.
Currently every nation has two chances to qualify for the Olympic Games and the World Cup. This will remain even with the dawning of the Pro-League. In Asia, the Asian Games are used for qualification for the Olympic Games and the Asian Cup for the World Cup. The Oceania Cup has been Australia and New Zealand’s qualifying tournament. If Australia and New Zealand were admitted into Asian Hockey then why couldn’t the two finalists in both the Asian Games and Asian Cup tournaments receive a qualification berth for the Olympic Games and World Cup?
This is not as preposterous as many will try and have you believe, as at the recent Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, Australia competed. So too did the Solomon Islands and Tahiti. In fact 16 nations from Oceania competed at the Games.
So what is holding Oceania back from being absorbed into Asia? Is it not time that Oceania joined up with Asia? Many believe that ultimately it will only benefit those lesser nations in each region as it will see them playing different opposition, rather than the same teams year-in-year out. Also would it ultimately raise the standard of teams in the region and make them more competitive on the World stage?