New Zealand Rugby on Wednesday issued licences for two Pacific island teams to join the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby competition from next year, in a major milestone for the long-awaited expansion.
The two teams - Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika - must still have their finances approved before they can participate, but World Rugby last month said it was helping boost their coffers.
"We are now on the cusp of realising a long-held desire to include Pasifika in our professional game and the opportunity to embrace all that comes with that," former Samoa and All Black legend Michael Jones said.
An estimated 20 percent of elite rugby players worldwide have Pacific heritage but top talent is almost always lured offshore because the islands lack a professional team competition.
The aim is for Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika to fill that gap, allowing the island nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa to reap the rewards of their rich rugby heritage.
Their inclusion in Super Rugby next year means the 2022 season would have 12 teams, five New Zealand, five Australian and two Pacific.
However, the New Zealanders - who emerged as Super Rugby's de facto powerbroker in the coronavirus era - have made clear that any Pacific teams must be commercially viable and well governed.
"We have confidence that Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua will be able to meet the conditions of the licence, which includes final sign off on a sustainable business plan by 30 June," NZR chief executive Mark Robinson said.
World Rugby is providing the Tonga, Fiji and Samoa rugby union with a collective Pound 3.2 million (US$4.4 million) over three years to help cover costs, as well as supplying administrative and high-performance expertise.
The Fiji Drua would be Suva-based and Moana Pasifika would be based in New Zealand, probably Auckland, focusing on attracting players from Samoa and Tonga.
Fiji Rugby Union Chair Conway Begg said having the licence allowed the team to finalise sponsorships, appoint coaches and contract players.
"We are on the home stretch and excitement is building across Fiji," he said.