NZ back down on Fijian Rugby World cup ban

Fijian soldier Leone Nakarawa will be able to play rugby for his country at next month’s Rugby World Cup after New Zealand’s government exempted him from travel sanctions imposed on Fiji’s military regime.

Foreign minister Murray McCully said Friday an exemption had been granted, allowing Nakarama to be named on Monday in Fiji’s 30-man World Cup squad.

The decision marked a major reversal by the New Zealand government which had previously insisted Nakarawa would be ineligible for a New Zealand visa as part of a ban on the Fijian military. He was not named, at New Zealand’s request, in the Fiji team that played the All Blacks in Dunedin in June.

Nakarawa scored a try in Fiji’s 32-20 loss to Tonga on Friday and is a selection certainty. He is reported to have sought a discharge from the Fiji army to play at the World Cup but he remained a serving officer at the time the exemption was granted.

As recently as June, New Zealand said it would not grant exemptions in individual cases such as Nakarawa’s, but Friday’s reversal came after intense pressure was applied by Fiji through diplomatic channels and the International Rugby Board urged New Zealand to ease the sanctions during the World Cup.

New Zealand has refused visas to members the Fiji military and their families since military leader Frank Bainimarama seized power in a December, 2006 coup. In 2009 it refused to allow the Fiji football team’s goalkeeper to play in a World Cup qualifying match in New Zealand because he was related by marriage to a naval officer.

New Zealand’s travel sanctions will prevent the chairman of the Fiji Rugby Union, Fiji land forces commander Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, and other senior rugby officials from visiting New Zealand during the tournament. McCully said Friday New Zealand was prepared to grant a temporary exemption to Nakarawa on the basis of his application for a discharge from the army.

“While we would normally take a little longer to provide an exemption or lift the sanction in respect of a person resigning from the military, in this case we agreed to act more quickly given the particular nature of the request,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers in New Zealand challenged Friday’s decision. Green party Member of Parliament Keith Locke described Nakarawa’s reported resignation from the Fiji army as a “dodge”.

“How can we credibly hold the line in terms of sanctions if we allow a person to one day be a member of the military, the next day not be, and be a member of the World Cup team?” Locke said.

“Once you’ve opened the floodgates, as it were, by allowing one person to use this Fijian sidestep, then others could do the same thing.”

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