The issue of nationality in rugby has been one of some controversy for many years. Various figures, whether Brad Shields, Gareth Anscombe or Virimi Vakatawa have controversially represented a country other than that of their birth. However, the flow of players across national borders takes place at lower levels of the game too.
Here, with little scouting and connections, and no personal relations between prospective clubs and players, the situation is even murkier. Clubs and players are dependent on agents, some of whom will have large portfolios, others smaller, but stories of both clubs and players being lied to are abundant.
One club, a Dutch side RC Hilversum, “had a prop given to us by one company who turned out to be half blind!” This is according to Marcus Holden, RC Hilversum’s head coach.
Speaking to Rugby World, he went on, “This wasn’t on his CV. By all accounts he had a good youth career before a hereditary chronic disease hit him. I asked him if he put this on his CV for job applications and he said no as people would not invest in him. This really limits his game – for high balls, defence at rucks etc. He even ran on to the wrong side of the pitch in our grand final.”
There are various options available to clubs in terms of agents. Many choose those with a smaller player pool, and use them repeatedly, trying to establish trust.
At the other end of the spectrum are Facebook forums, such as ‘Inside Running Recruitment – Play Rugby Oversees.’ This is the wild west of signing players. Posts are put on the page, listing clubs and locations and positions required (‘Irish club, require fly half, located near Dublin, footage preferred’ for instance). It has the feel of an online marketplace, an eBay for aspiring players.
On sites like these clubs offer employment, free flights and accommodation, gym memberships and other packages and privileges to entice players in. The average level is around National 3, or the French Fédérale 2, but the market is truly international, clubs from Portugal to Japan are recruiting players through Facebook
Players can be sold the dream of making it abroad, of an opportunity to pursue a career in one of the wealthiest rugby league systems such as France and England. It is thought around 600 players of Pacific Island descent throughout the French league system alone, with the greatest number of them from Fiji. There is, however, no fixed figure, illustrating inaccuracies in registration and perhaps tax avoidance.
Many players, who have come over directly from the pacific islands, are paid around €600 monthly. Tales have emerged of players sending money home, and perhaps spending €400 or €500 on power and rent, left on a pittance to live on. For an athlete, being paid to train and play, this can be damaging, depressing and undermine their health in the long run.
For all the glamorous transfers then, the debates about residency rules, and talks of a post-world cup Super Rugby ‘exodus,’ the real problems resulting from the growing internationality of sport lie below the surface.
Human trafficking takes place in African, with aspiring footballers being sold dreams by callous, manipulative agents, who trick families into giving up life savings in order to sending sons and daughters to Europe, with little more than the clothes on their back and the hopes and dreams of a child.
This is something rugby must guard against. Players have a right to access a growing, global market, but this must be regulated correctly. For pacific islanders in particular, rugby can be the route out of poverty for an entire family, but this leaves them open to abuse and potentially vulnerable. As the debate about professionalism’s impact on the game rages on, these are the issues those at the top must be addressing.
Written by Joe Ronan