As the rugby world braces itself for the storm of excitement on the horizon in the form of RWC 2019, it must not allow itself to lose sight of the massive structural problems that continue to plague the game. As outspoken World Rugby vice-Chairman Agustin Pichot said, the financial disparity between the tier one and Pacific Island nations is ‘bullshit.’
It is estimated that 18% of the world’s current professional playing population is of Pacific Islander descent, as well as 25% of the players at the 2015 World Cup. Tonga, by players per capita, is the worlds most rugby mad nation, with one in five playing the game. Yet, despite this love for the game, which should be fostered and cherished, the Pacific Island nations have not been sufficiently supported by tier one nations.
When Samoa played England at Twickenham, English players earnt around £22,000 each, whilst the Samoan players received a tenth of that. It is thought that £10 million was made from the game, with the hosting nation taking the money. England have never played a match in Samoa.
There has been continual talk of the practice of ‘poaching’ players from Pacific Island nations. In recent years a series of top quality stars, of Pacific Island heritage, have chosen to play for nations other than that of their birth.
One such player, Tevita Kuridrani, was born and raised in Fiji but after impressing in Super Rugby he was fast tracked into the Wallabies set up.
France are perhaps the biggest offender, with Top 14 professional clubs, such as Brive, establishing academies in Fiji that appear to contravene World Rugby regulations. These ‘illegal’ academies benefit the French set up at the expense of the Pacific Islands and must be stopped.
In 2015, 10 Fijian teenagers aged from 14 to 17 who took part in the national schools competition, signed contracts with teams in France.
However, Dan Leo, ex-Samoan international, believes the lexis of ‘poaching’ is a myth, and denies the Pacific Islanders agency.
“It comes up all the time,” he told SpinoffNZ, “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 per cent 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.”
This follows reports in The Guardian of oversees players who are providing the income of whole villages.
For Leo, the solution is to be found not in stopping players from departing, but allowing them to return, for, “until we see some real change and movement from the north, it’s going to carry on being this way.” Leo proposes a rule change to allow players to switch back to their country of origin if they so choose.
“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,” Leo explained. “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.”
In 2004, New Zealand Rugby proposed to make the eligibility laws more flexible, allowing for greater freedom of players representing nations of birth or heritage. However, it has been reported in New Zealand that the Six Nations Unions blocked that proposal.
If rugby has any moral backbone, it must support the Pacific Islands in their battle for a fairer fight. This must come in the form of addressing structural imbalances, rather than simply condemning the decisions of individuals to seek financial advancement abroad.
Written by Joe Ronan