Documentary paints bleak picture of Pacific Islands rugby

WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> The treatment of Pacific Island rugby players in the professional era is compared to colonialism in a new documentary produced and narrated by former Samoa international Dan Leo.

“Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby” accuses World Rugby and the sport’s elite nations of exploiting Pacific Islands player resources, while retaining nearly all of the wealth these players create.

The island states of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have a total population of only 1.5 million, but supply nearly a quarter of all professional rugby players. At the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, 42 players of Pacific Island descent played for countries other than those of their birth or background.

Remittances from Pacific players playing abroad provide nearly 20% of the gross domestic product of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, where the minimum wage is on average less than 1 / 10th of that in developed countries such as Australia or New Zealand.

Leo argues that rugby is not only a way of life, but also a lifeline in the Pacific. Players strive to become professional and play abroad as their earnings support families, communities, and sometimes entire villages.

Oceans Apart states that the financial pressure on Pacific players and the limitation of their choice of where to play is making them ripe for exploitation. Leo says World Rugby is turning a blind eye to that exploitation and denying the Pacific a say in the governance of the game that is dominated by the 10 Tier 1 nations.

The elite countries – Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales – each have three votes on the World Rugby Board, while Fiji and Samoa each have one and Tonga have none. voice. to vote.

Leo leads the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare organization created to represent Pacific players, lobby for fairer treatment, and address the inequalities in the professional game. “Oceans Apart” is his powerful polemic that accuses the rugby world of ignoring its own values ​​by allowing the continued looting of Pacific talent.

Leo summarizes his vision on a visit to the grave of British author Robert Louis Stevenson, who died in Samoa in 1890. Stevenson, the author of “Treasure Island” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” settled in Samoa and stood up for the interests of the Samoan people over those of the colonial powers.

“I can’t help but feel that we are taking advantage,” says Leo. “I can’t help but compare colonialism to what happens in rugby. Our resources are constantly being exploited and very little is given back. “

He sees the eligibility rule as a central cause of the plight of the Pacific countries. Pacific players are often ‘caught’ early on by major countries, even recruited as teenagers and sent to those national teams. After playing for another country, they can no longer represent their home country in the Pacific, which is gradually being weakened by the loss of their best players.

“World Rugby currently has a one-country rule for life, forcing players to give up much of their identity,” said Leo. “These players could choose to play for their island teams. But knowing that you have villages, families and communities that rely on the money returned by foreign rugby players can often seem selfish to play for your island team knowing how little money you receive. “

Former Tonga captain Inoke Afeaki describes a “slave-owning mentality” among wealthy clubs and nations that believe they “own” Pacific players.

Leo suggests three remedies: Fairer sharing of the wealth created by Pacific players; an end to the admission rule that would allow island players to play for their own country, and a greater voice for the Pacific in World Rugby.

Leo’s opinion is supported by Tonga-born England international Mako Vunipola.

“There are a lot of people like me who go abroad to try to find a better life and take care of the people at home,” Vunipola told the British Press Association. “So you can’t take that away from them, that chance to play for someone else, who represents another country.

“But I also feel for those who need a chance to get themselves on the international stage and have a better chance. It’s really a catch-22. “