The future of pacific islands rugby

The Ex-Player 

Dan Leo, Programme Director at Pacific Rugby Players Welfare

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When we started Pacific Rugby Players Welfare three years ago, we thought we’d be covering around 400 players who were playing in leagues across Europe, but now that figure has more than doubled, with around 800 to 1,000 players for whom rugby is the main source of income. That’s just in Europe, there are many more players of Pacific heritage in America – about 35 per cent of the players who launched the league two years ago were Pacific Islanders – and of course across Super Rugby and Asia. 

We started as an advocacy group on the back of what happened in 2014, when Samoa came to Twickenham. I was part of the Samoan playing group that year and we’d been provided with some documents that suggested corruption within the rugby union, and we called for resignations of certain people. If they didn’t resign, we weren’t going to play. It was in the build-up to the game against England, so the players had to have conversations with World Rugby and Samoan Rugby Union, but we needed an independent group to talk on the players behalf; and that’s what we became.

Now, our remit is much wider, it’s also about player welfare for those in the European leagues, from the top divisions in England and France, to the lower tiers and smaller unions in places such as Russia, Spain and Romania. 

The issues start in the Pacific Islands. Take Samoa, there the rate of employment is 50%, so when you leave school, you’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting a job. If you don’t, there is subsistence farming or fishing, so at least we can live off the land if we need too. But there is an over-reliance on remittance from the overseas community, so if you’re a young person you always look to try and get off the island as soon as you can to make things better for your family.

That route is often rugby. And the first problem with this, is that there is no minimum wage, or minimum contracts for rugby players. Some will leave Samoa just for the cost of the flight and accommodation, that is when the red light starts to flash for me. They’ll come over and think, ‘I’ll just do six months, then a bigger club will come in’, but instead they accrue debt or take out loans and they get stuck financially. Some that get paid leave for €1,500 a season, with the accommodation on top, which is nowhere near enough to live on in a European city.

One of our most high-profile cases was Sione Vaiomounga, who was playing in Romania and contracted kidney disease. The rugby club cut his by salary by over 80 per cent. Instead of €1,200 a month, it went down to €200 a month. He was having dialysis four times a week; his wife was also looking after two children so couldn’t get a job; and all four of them were living in a one-bedroom studio flat. They were dependant on the food bank and the support of the Mormon church, and were suffering in silence. We were able to step in and set up a fundraising page that raised €40,000 to help him get through it, and arrange a kidney transplant. It wasn’t even as if he could’ve gone home even if they’d been able to afford the flights, because back in Tonga they just didn’t have the equipment needed for his kidney condition, so they’d effectively been trapped.

What was worrying that there was no support for him, he’d moved to Romania for rugby, but none of the governing bodies did anything for him. 

This was a good story in the end, but it worries me that those instances can happen because there are no safeguards in place to protect players with contracts – this guy had a terminal illness and the club were allowed to cut his contract. Helping with funding is a band aid, we need to put regulations in place for minimum standards. 

As soon as one high profile case comes through, other players only get in touch when they’re in trouble, either for contractual problems, not being released, being messed around by the club; but it’s almost too late by that point, there’s a need for us to solve the problems before they go overseas. We can put a band aid over the situation, but there are greater issues to deal with. 

We’re pretty stretched for resources, because we’re a donations based, non-profit organisation, and we have no access to public or World Rugby funding, so all we can do is highlight the issue, or help them raise funds. 

It can happen to any player. Look at Rupeni Caucaunibuca, he was one of the biggest names in the game and was left with nothing. It was partially his fault, because he wasted a lot of his resources, but when you look into it, you realise he didn’t have the support around him. He needed that support when he was earning €200,000 a season because he had no education, he ran away from school at the age of seven, he’d never seen a note higher than a five dollar bill before playing rugby and came from the most remote village in the world. He lost everything and you can see that happening to more and more players. 

In the last five to ten years, we’ve seen the first group of professionals who have only ever known rugby start to retire and return to the community, and there’s been a lot of issues. The traditional way was always, when you’re up you look after your family and village, when you’re down, they look after you, but I think we need to move to another model.

The first thing I think that needs changing is the funding, because we need a player pathway that means players don’t have to leave the islands. World Rugby has to find a way to make Pacific Island rugby viable and sustainable. The big picture is that about 50 per cent of World Rugby revenue gets spread among the top ten nations, then the next 25 per cent is the next ten, and then the final 25 per cent among the next 120 sides. I think that model needs to change, it needs to be flipped on its head, so it’s more in line with how football invests in emerging nations. Otherwise it’s a top-heavy model that just sees more reinvestment in the top sides, and a bigger gap. 

I also think we need a change in the mentality of established nations in the sport, so that we can redistribute the wealth in a meaningful way, it’s not happening now, there’s too much greed being shown by Six Nations and SANZAR [South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby] countries which make up those top ten nations. There’s been a bit of a change in SANZAR but that’s because they’re financially struggling themselves.

The profit share models need to change as well. The fact rugby still operates by a system by which home nations get 100 per cent of revenue generation is unfair. If Samoa comes to play England, the home side gets 100 per cent, not a cent goes to the visiting nation. That’s based on a reciprocal agreement, but England have not been to Samoa, but even if they did we still wouldn’t generate money, we’d lose it, because we only have a 10,000-seater stadium. 

I think if it fell in line with the FA Cup approach it would be fairer, so a tier one v tier two should contribute ten or twenty per cent to the away side. Making that sort of change would generate investment for local competitions, and could help local rugby and not just make the Pacific Islands a conveyor belt for everybody else. But it would take a big change in mindset for the big ten. 

You can already see the implications from not helping the Pacific Island nations. This year in Tonga, rugby league just became the national sport for the first time because Tonga are now a tier one nation in rugby league and they’re playing to sell-out crowds in New Zealand and Australia. I was in Tonga earlier this year and rugby union has no visibility, it’s basically dead in terms of exposure.  

In Samoa, the NFL just ran its first ever recruitment camp at St Joseph’s College in Samoa, which is traditionally one of the strongest rugby schools. Other codes are investing and we’re not, it’s sad to see. The sharks are circling.  

Even if you took the Pacific Islands out of the equation, it’s sad to see the gap widening. In 2007, the governing body talked about doubling the amount of teams that could win the world cup, but has that happened? Only Argentina have emerged. But in terms of tier two nations, no movement, no change. Is that what we want as a sport? To stagnate? We have to have a change that creates a pathway that can, for instance, find a way for Georgia to get into the Six Nations. 

Eligibility needs to change as well, so that some of the Pacific Island stars that play for other nations can come back and play for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, that could have a real impact.  Current eligibility rules don’t reflect modern society, because we don’t stay in one country for life any more. The Olympics allow you to change based on your nationality and passport, so why don’t we do that in rugby? To say somebody is just from one place is too simplistic, it’s too small minded. With migration, the movement of people, we need a more embracing outlook.

A wider problem in society is the competition for the kids’ attention. Technology advances more slowly in the islands, but it catches up and now, in the last ten to fifteen years we’re seeing kids staying in to play computer games. In Tonga, a country of 108,000 people, there are 12,000 registered rugby players, but that number is shrinking because interest levels are dropping. If it drops below 10,000 we’re going to have huge problems, so we need to inspire kids to play.

That goes back to the bigger teams. I grew up in New Zealand but one standout moment of my life was when I first saw Samoa play against Auckland at Eden Park. And the kids need those moments, they need the tier one nations to visit, for England to play in Georgia; Australia in Samoa and Tonga – that’s never happened, despite being close neighbours. I don’t think a tier one side visited Tonga in almost 20 years, I think Ireland were the last in 2001. That means you’ve got a generation that’s never ever seen a tier one side on home soil. It boggles the mind. 

The World Rugby Nations League wasn’t the solution. I’m not saying it was a bad concept, but we just felt while it would’ve been good for Fiji if they got in, Tonga and Samoa would’ve been left behind. Even if there had been promotion, you’d have been locked into playing tier two nations for two years so even if you were promoted, who knows what state you’d be in. Again, there was just no consultation with the tier two union and it was all being decided by established nations. I felt it just reinforced the old boys’ club that rugby still operates by. 

Rugby is at a crossroads with the Pacific Islands now. It’s a bit is of a conveyor belt for talent but that demand is getting higher, more people want our skills, more sports, different countries, and rugby has to make a move to support it, otherwise that talent pool is going to be lost. 

OpinionSimon Campbell