WELLINGTON, New Zealand, June 2 – The International Rugby Board said Thursday it would keep lobbying New Zealand to lift a ban on Fijian players with links to the country's military regime from this year's World Cup.
Prime Minister John Key reiterated the policy Wednesday, saying removing the ban would "make a bit of a mockery" of New Zealand’s efforts to restore democracy in Fiji after a military coup in 2006.
But IRB chief executive Mike Miller, in New Zealand to mark 100 days to start of the tournament in September, said he had not given up hope Wellington would change its stance and allow Fiji to field its best team.
Miller said the IRB would continue talks with officials in New Zealand and Fiji.
"Clearly it’s a sensitive issue. Issues like this are best sorted out in private, when you can sit down and have reflective conversations with people outside of the public glare," he told Radio New Zealand.
Miller, who in April denied the ban was a major issue for the tournament, revealed the IRB had been working behind the scenes for months to lift the ban.
"We’ve been having meetings for the last few months. We will continue to meet on the subject and it really doesn’t help to play this out in public," he said.
New Zealand barred anyone with ties to Fiji military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama’s regime from entering the country after he seized power in 2006, suspending the constitution, sacking the judiciary and muzzling the media.
The ban prevents all Fijian military personnel, senior bureaucrats in the regime and their immediate families from visiting New Zealand or transiting through the country on international trips.
The military has strong ties to rugby in Fiji, with a number of personnel receiving leave from the defence forces to play for the national team.
The recently appointed Fiji Rugby Union chairman Mosese Tikoitoga is a colonel in the military, who commands the country’s land forces.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully was emphatic when asked Wednesday whether the sanction would be relaxed for the World Cup, saying he had told the FRU "banned meant banned".
FRU chief executive Keni Dakuidreketi has criticised a suggestion from Fiji’s Olympic committee that the country should consider boycotting the tournament if New Zealand refused to back down.
"They have never really consulted us. They have never really had anything to do with the preparation for the World Cup and I’m not quite sure what angle they are coming from," he told Radio New Zealand International.
The Fijivillage.com news website reported on Thursday that at least six players from the army were taking part in trials for Fiji’s World Cup squad.