OF all the scandals which have undermined rugby’s dubious claim to some sort of moral superiority over other sports, none quite match the scope, depth and fundamental injustice of the treatment of Pacific Islands rugby by the game’s local and global administrators.
Forget about ‘granny-gate’, ‘blood-gate’ and even Israel Folou’s homophobia – the convenient soft-soaping of negligence and corruption inside the Fijian, Samoan and Tongan rugby unions, and the systematic exploitation of those countries by the international rugby establishment, blows everything else out of the water.
Daniel Leo played 39 times for Samoa after his debut in 2005 until his international career was brought to an abrupt end almost a decade later, immediately after he took a leading role in a players’ revolt against their governing union over a number of issues such as the misuse of funds, the lack of support for players, and the blacklisting of individuals who had been deemed problematic. That situation escalated into the team threatening to boycott their multimillion-pound spinning (for the home union) match against England at Twickenham in November 2014, and although they were eventually talked – some might say bullied – back from the ledge, Leo was never selected for his country again.
But he didn’t go away. Instead he helped set up ‘Pacific Rugby Players Welfare’ in 2016 to support the hundreds of Pacific Islands rugby players living and plying their trade across the globe, and has spent much of the last four years campaigning, lobbying, tweeting and doing anything else he can think of to improve the lives of all players who come under his organisation’s remit.
“I was dropped from our national team for exposing corruption within our union,” he explains in the opening scenes of the recently released ‘Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby’, an hour-long documentary which was four years in the making and throws an unforgiving light on the various means by which the world’s most productive rugby heartland is being used and abused.
“Our chairman, who is also the Prime Minister of our country, along with our senior politicians, had mismanaged hundreds of thousands of pounds, most of which had been raised through public donations. The evidence was ignored by the sport’s governing body, World Rugby. Our national team then fell from seventh in the world to 17th in just three years.”
It is a powerful start to an eye-popping production. Most of the big messages in the documentary have been heard before, but the detail Leo provides through his first-hand experience, his feel for the story, and his success in getting himself and his camera in front of the big players in this tawdry affair, pulls it all together into a compelling narrative which every true rugby fan really should be taking heed of.
He highlights that Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, with a combined population of 1.5million, provide the heritage of more than a quarter of the world’s professional rugby players, including some of the biggest names in the sport.
He explains that Pacific expats send more than £300 million back to their islands every year, and that rugby players alone contribute up to 20 percent of GDP. “In Fiji, where the minimum wage is 10 times lower than their closest neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, rugby has become more than just a game – it’s a lifeline,” surmises Leo.
Some of the key themes are the mistreatment and manipulation of Pacific Island players by their own unions, the toxic combination of criminals and politicians at the top of the Fijian union, and the similar level of dysfunctionality in the Samoan and Tongan unions.
But this is not just an internal issue. There is a clear lack of desire within World Rugby – the global body for the game – to provide leadership in addressing these problems, or to look at ways of levelling a horribly lopsided playing-field between the haves and have-nots when it comes to funding the sport.
At present, the home nation holds onto all gate-receipts from any international match on the assumption that things will even up when the opposition repay the favour, but Leo points out that Scotland – in 2012 – was the only ‘Tier One’ nation to visit Samoa during his time in the side.
And even if the big hitters do come, then it doesn’t translate into the mega payday which is so desperately needed, with small stadiums, cheap ticket pricing and having to pay the airfare of the opposition biting into any profit. In fact, when Samoa ebtertained the All Blacks in 2016 it resulted in a £1m loss for the host union. Italy and Wales have also visited Samoa since Leo retired.
So, that’s four ‘Tier One’ visits to Samoa since Leo’s debut 15 years ago. In the same period, they have sung for their dinner in 24 away games against ‘Tier One’ nations. It is little wonder they don’t have an infrastructure in place which is anywhere near capable of making the most of the very few visits they get.
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With the 10 established ‘Tier One’ nations commanding 30 votes (60%) on World Rugby’s Council, and the other 120 rugby playing nations – including Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – sharing nine votes (less than 20%), the only chance the Pacific Islanders or any other nation has of getting some sort of meaningful financial recognition for their contribution to the game lies in the big dogs suddenly developing a pang of conscience. Fat chance.
Towards the end of the documentary, we see World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper trying to squirm his way out of some very reasonable questions from Leo about changing the voting structure in World Rugby, World Rugby’s hands-off approach to the internal governance issues in the Pacific Islands, sharing gate-receipts and whether rugby unions live the values they claim to purport. His frantically waving hands and increasingly perspirant forehead betray his discomfort and trying to defend the indefensible.
It is almost comical, but sinister when set against Sina Retzlaff – one of Samoa Rugby’s first female Board members – explaining to Leo that: “You can’t be in a development partner relationship with an organisation who’s going to hang the carrot of ‘we’re going to pull our money on you’. It’s like being married to someone who threatens to divorce you every week.”
“I’ve been at the Samoan Rugby Union office, for example, and when I’m insisting on something the answer has been: ‘What if they [World Rugby] pull out?’”
There is something far wrong in this relationship, and it is not just about the immediate allocation of money. As it stands, we will never be able to have a grown up conversation about changing the ‘one-country-for-life’ eligibility rule which currently means that Pacific Islanders, some of whom have been hoovered up by ‘Tier One’ countries as teenagers, cannot return to play for their homelands toward the end of their careers if they have already been capped elsewhere.
“These players could choose to play for their island teams, but knowing that you’ve got villages, families and communities relying on the money being sent back from overseas rugby players, it can often be selfish to play for you island team, knowing how little money you’ll receive,” reasons Leo.
“Allowing a single change from ‘Tier One’ down to ‘Tier Two nation of heritage’ would have an immediate effect on growing the global game and, best of all, it wouldn’t cost a thing,” he concludes later in the programme.
Laced through it all is human stories of Pacific Island players who have been sucked up, chewed through, and spat out by the system. When former Tonga captain Inoke Afeaki, one of the interviewees, compares the situation to the slave trade, it isn’t too much of a stretch.
“How is it that rugby, a sport supposedly built on its strong values, is able to treat some of its best yet poorest players like raw commodities, only to be exploited in what is now a global business?” asks Leo.
It is a good question – and a very important one.
- ‘Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby’ is available on Amazon Video.