MELBOURNE: Filipo Daugunu's first test try against the All Blacks on Sunday capped a fine debut for the former Fiji soccer junior while underlining the growing importance of Pasifika talent to the fortunes of Australian rugby.
The pacy winger was among eight players with Pacific islands heritage in Dave Rennie's first starting 15 for the 16-16 draw at Wellington where Samoa-born Hunter Paisami also enjoyed an encouraging debut at centre.
One-time soccer goalkeeper Daugunu earned his place on the back of an outstanding Super Rugby AU campaign for the Queensland Reds.
But having fellow Fijian Marika Koroibete, who ignited the Wallabies' second-half rally with an exhilarating try, in the changing room might have helped Daugunu feel more at ease in an unfamiliar environment.
"It’s got to be easier when you look around a room and you see people who have probably had very similar experiences to you," former Wallabies vice captain Morgan Turinui told Reuters.
"If you’re sitting in a room and you're the only person with that experience then it’s obviously harder."
The Wallabies were not always quite so diverse.
The matchday 22 that beat France in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final featured only a single player of Pasifika origin in Tonga-born number eight Toutai Kefu.
Australian rugby has changed dramatically in the decades since, reflecting migration patterns and the growing strength of Pasifika communities in Australia's east-coast cities.
Turinui, whose father is Maori, was part a wave of Polynesian players in the early 2000s who helped change perceptions of the Wallabies as a destination for Caucasian, private school-educated elite.
General manager of the "Classic Wallabies" alumni group, Turinui oversees a membership base he expects will only become more diverse.
"The Pacific islands' influence has been there for a long time but if you look at some of the numbers, just under half of all professional players are Pasifika," he said.
"At the amateur level as well, Pacific nations make up a huge number of our players and volunteers."
While Michael Cheika, Ewen McKenzie and other past Wallabies coaches have welcomed Pasifika talent with open arms, Rennie has gone the extra mile in having his players recognise and celebrate their diversity.
The New Zealander, who has Cook Islands heritage on his mother's side, has had players talk to each other about their roots at training camps.
Samoa-born prop Allan Alaalatoa was surprised when Rennie stood up during a team meeting in the leadup to Wellington and announced one of the "Tongan boys" had brought a song.
Hooker Folau Faingaa and prop Taniela Tupou led the Wallabies in a chorus of a traditional Tongan song.
"When you’re seeing the non-Pacific boys get stuck into the song, really enjoying (it) and that genuine feeling of wanting to connect, that’s the best thing about it," Alaalatoa told reporters on Wednesday.
The Fijian players have also led a singalong and the Samoans' turn is coming up.
"That’s been one of the great changes this year that I’ve felt," added Alaalatoa.
"The more we can connect off the field, the better it will be for us on the field."
Sunday's clash against New Zealand, the second in the annual Bledisloe Cup series contested by the trans-Tasman nations, will be a huge test of the Wallabies' unity at Eden Park, a venue where they are winless since 1986.
While cautious about declaring the Wallabies the "real deal", Turinui was encouraged by their performance in Wellington and good signals coming out of the playing group.
"I think even we’ve seen with this newest Wallabies squad some more overt recognition of the different paths guys have walked," he said.
“We’re only one week in but everything we're seeing is that they've come together well."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)