Fiji set to host historic NRL trial match

There are plans to stage a historic clash between two NRL sides in Fiji as early as next year as the game prepares to expand into another international frontier.

The initiative is the brainchild of the Melbourne Storm, who are poised to announce on Tuesday a new partnership with Fiji Airways for at least the next three years. Storm officials are hopeful the deal – which includes becoming the club’s new shorts sponsor – will result in a trial match being taken to Fiji in the upcoming pre-season for the first time in the game’s history.

There are several logistical and operational challenges to deliver the historic event, which is yet to officially be locked in. However, the Newcastle Knights have expressed an interest in being Melbourne’s opponents in a match that has the full support of Fiji Airways.

There are a number of venue options in Fiji, with Churchill Park in Lautoka – which has a capacity of 12,000 – shaping as the most likely destination.

The bold venture comes as rugby league looks to establish a greater international footprint. The NRL will stage a historic double-header, featuring South Sydney, Manly, Brisbane and the Roosters, in Las Vegas to kick off the 2024 season.

The governments of Australia and Fiji are also backing a bid for Papua New Guinea to be granted an NRL licence with a view to potentially joining the competition as its 18th team as soon as 2027. The importance of the Pacific has also been underscored by the Pacific Championships, a series of internationals currently being played by Australia, Samoa and New Zealand, as well as a second tri-series involving Fiji, PNG and the Cook Islands.

As an extension of the Fiji Airways partnership, the Storm are looking to grow pathway opportunities in Fiji, including a new program to bring more Fijian kids to Australia, as well as support local clubs and schools playing rugby league and provide additional coaching and development support to schools and communities cross Fiji.

Storm chief Justin Rodski, prop Christian Welch and football general manager Frank Ponissi will make the official partnership announcement at Fiji Airways Hangar in Nadi on Tuesday. Fijian-born Storm prop Tui Kamikamica has been a big supporter of the partnership and will work closely with the Fijian community.

The NRL had announced plans, in association with the Australian government, to take trial games to Pacific Nations in 2020-2022. However, the COVID-19 outbreak scuppered the project.