The big issue: Pacific Island poaching
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: It's the same depressing tale we hear every year: a Pacific Island nation tours, plays Tests against tier one nations and the players receive a pittance in return.
Add on to that the fact that Pacific Island rugby is beset with financial and administrative problems, plus a player drain that seems to be getting stronger every year to those very tier one nations that Fiji, Samoa and Tonga find themselves playing against.
Jamie Wall of RugbyPass spoke with 42-Test Manu Samoa and Pacific Islander lock/loose forward Dan Leo, who also had a substantial career playing club rugby in England and France for the likes of Wasps, Perpignan and Bordeaux Begles, and now heads up Pacific Rugby Players Welfare.
They talked about the issues facing island players both home and abroad - and how we can maybe get to a stage where we're not seeing the same old headlines.
Jamie Wall: So what are you up to nowadays?
Dan Leo: I'm based just north of London, and my job for the last two years has been establishing Pacific Rugby Players Welfare with other former players. It's effectively a player's union to lobby against some of the disparities that exist, but also providing strong welfare programmes for the 5-600 players of Pacific Island heritage that are here in the UK and Europe. It helps them deal with some of the issues that can arise when you're playing here, away from your support base and communities. If we're going to grow the game we need a fairer share of that revenue that's being generated by big games like this.
JW: So almost two years ago to the day you were walking into a meeting with World Rugby to talk about fairer revenue sharing. Now we're seeing the same tale play out this week about how English players are getting around £22,000 each for their upcoming Test match against Manu Samoa, while the Samoan players are receiving around a tenth of that. What's changed in those two years if we're still hearing this?
DL: The sad story is I don't really feel like there's been any progress made in the last two years. In terms of the Samoan Rugby Union, they've done what they can do - but they're a cash-strapped union. We went in there and tried to force their hand to increase match payments from NZ$1,000 a week, which is nothing when you consider the £10 million or so that's going to be made when Samoa play England at Twickenham. We got it increased to NZ$1200, but we've been pushing for a much stronger and fairer revenue sharing model. At the moment the model is based on a very old, almost prehistoric, agreement where the home unions get to keep 100 percent of their gate takings. In theory that's then reciprocated. The issue we have is that England has never come out to Samoa, Tonga or Fiji. Their argument would be that they'd just like to play the All Blacks every game. Rugby is a business, I understand that, but if we're going to grow the game we need a fairer share of that revenue that's being generated by big games like this.
JW: You tweeted support for World Rugby's Agustin Pichot, who came out and said that the revenue sharing situation is 'wrong', even going to say that 'I can't bullshit you' - which makes it obvious that this is a widely known problem. Do you feel like they're aware of it and consciously trying to do something about it?
DL: Oh they're definitely aware of it. I guess Pichot is our 'breath of fresh air' in that organisation and he calls a spade a spade. Whether anyone's going to do something about it, that's the question. As you said, this comes up every November when a Pacific Island team plays up here - but it's only an issue for that one week then it all goes quiet again until the next year. It's a difficult situation and there's a lot of politics in play, but at the end of the day, we need someone to dip their hand in their pocket and say 'we're prepared to take a little bit less' for the benefit of these smaller countries and the world game. No one wants to be the ones to dip their hand into their pockets - so we're stagnating as a sport.
JW: You mentioned before that the host unions take 100 percent of the gate takings. What NZ Rugby, at least, has said is that they have to in order to make home tests profitable? Do you buy that?
DL: No, I don't buy that at all. The issue I see is that those top, tier one nations are so protective of keeping their share of the pie. Our argument is that if you make that pie bigger then collectively the same piece will be worth more. We need to invest in the growth of the game, but that investment has to come from somewhere. It'll take short term sacrifice for long-term gain, but at the moment no one wants to be the ones to dip their hand into their pockets - so we're stagnating as a sport.
JW: There's been a lot of criticism of the way Samoan rugby is run. Is that still an issue?
DL: Governance remains an issue. We haven't been the best at times, the mismanagement and corruption that is associated with Pacific Island rugby is a lot to do with what's holding us back. My argument, or at least suspicion, is that the powers that be are happy to see us stumble with the crumbs that they give us because it justifies not having to give anything back into Pacific Island rugby. If we can sort that out and cut out that excuse, that'll be a massive step forward. There's the old saying: 'if you give a man a fish he'll eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish he'll eat for a lifetime.' At the moment I'm not convinced that World Rugby really want us to learn how to fish and be able to thrive. It comes up all the time, but I don't believe there's such a thing as poaching in rugby.
JW: A lot of the blame for the predicament of Pacific Island rugby, from the northern media at least, gets levelled at New Zealand around 'poaching' players. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
DL: It comes up all the time, but I don't believe there's such a thing as poaching in rugby. It's more market forces. I know in our community, guys make decisions to play for the All Blacks or France or whoever based on financial reasons. 99.9 percent of guys who I meet over here playing pro or semi-pro, their number one goal is to provide food and living needs for their families and communities back home. If you give them the best contract, that's where they're going to. Decisions based on allegiances to one's country are being made secondary, but that's because of a lack of a credible pathway back home in the Pacific. That's what needs to be assessed, if that was a reality then they'd be playing for the Pacific Islands. But at the moment, we have to leave the islands to make a living, and so after three years of playing in New Zealand or England and to have the carrot of potentially earning £22,000 a game, it's a very hard offer to turn down when you've got family living in a shack back at home. People say it's poaching, but I'm yet to come across any examples where the boundary gets blurred - except the obviously illegal French academies being set up in Fiji. Again though, as an organisation we're here to support players, however, they come to making the decision to play in Europe. We say 'hey look, rugby is a finite career, you've only got a short time to make a decent living'. For us as Pacific Islanders, with the way World Rugby is structured right now, that means making the decision not to play for our test sides. Not just because of financial issues, but organisational and structural ones too - although I'm happy to see Fiji and Tonga buck that trend lately.
JW: Exactly what is going on with those French academies in Fiji and what makes them illegal?
DL: This is black and white for me. World Rugby regulations state that you're not allowed to have any academies outside of the physical boundaries of your nation, so how we've got French academies in Fiji boggles the mind really. We think that there's some sort of transaction going on there, we can't prove that but all the fingers point in that direction really. We don't hold it against the Fijian players who have gone on to play for France, but if we really want it to be a world game then these are the little areas that need to be ironed out. Taking players out of Fiji isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's got to be made sustainable. There needs to be some sort of investment into the next level, which I don't see happening at the moment.
JW: Lately we've seen Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita turn their backs on the Kiwi and Kangaroo rugby league teams respectively, do you see this as a sign that some Pacific Island players are now more financially secure and able to make their own decisions? I know it's a different sport, but it still sends a pretty powerful message to kids out there about the choices they have once they've got a bit of money in their pocket.
DL: Yeah definitely. These top line guys aren't making decisions based on financial pressure anymore, so they're free to make one based on who they consider themselves to be. Yes, they're raised in New Zealand and Australia, but they see themselves as Tongan. I think that's a great thing, I'd love to see that in rugby. We've got guys over here that made a decision to play for the All Blacks or even the All Black Sevens for a couple of caps, then they're lost to the system. An example is Robbie Fruean, who played a game for NZ 'A' 10 years ago, and that's locked him in and he can never give back to his country of heritage. I think that's a real shame. I'm not saying rugby league has got it right regarding eligibility, but at least I feel like they want to work with the Pacific Island guys to give back - which I can only see as a positive.
JW: So do you think if there is going to be a decent overhaul of the current situation, it should be player-led? Because from an administrative view we just seem to be going round in circles with these stories. How difficult will that be given that you're more or less putting your livelihood in someone else's hands if you go down that route?
DL: There's always power in numbers, which is why player's unions exist. If the administrators aren't up to the task, then you need to look at alternative action. The English player's association right now is talking about a player-led action if the global season is to be extended, because the clubs here are putting pressure on players to play even longer. So there are all sorts of different issues affecting the game. Part of what we're doing at Pacific Rugby Players Welfare is making sure players have that independent voice. For me, it has to be a collective effort. The biggest voice in all of this, of course, is the public. I have a lot of faith in the rugby public, there's so much good faith out there for the Pacific Islands and the players - every true rugby supporter I meet wants to see Pacific Island rugby thrive, and unions and governing bodies should be reflective of what the public wants to see. Pacific Island rugby brings so much to the world game, it's sad to see an institution like it fade away because people weren't aware of the issues.
By Jamie Wall