Billy Keane

Saturday 26 July 2014

Billy Keane: A proud people under siege from club lobby and plundering superpowers

Published 09/11/2013|00:01

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THE Samoans are an island people, just like us. They are no strangers to raids and invasions from overseas superpowers. Many of their players have been poached by bigger nations. Especially New Zealand. It is a rugby scandal.

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Scouts from England, France, Australia and New Zealand are checking out Samoan under-age games all the time.

The plundered players will then be turned into Englishmen or Kiwis simply by spending five years in the country that bought them.

The IRB have tried to compensate for allowing the island clearances by putting in a high performance unit in Samoa and Regulation 9 has been a godsend for the smaller countries. Regulation 9 is a rugby law.

Put simply, clubs cannot stop a player from playing with his country. Like most island nations, Samoa's biggest export is her people. Only two of the Samoan international team play at home.

So, here they are together in Ireland, united for a while at least.

Samoa is a nation of fewer than 200,000 people. You could fit the whole country into a corner of Dublin. yet they have risen to seventh in the world, one place above us. An incredible achievement.

Around this time of year small villages are setting out on an incredible human journey. No this is not the saga of brave island mariners heading off out into the Pacific in search of adventure and uninhabited atolls.

CHURCH

This is the story of the GAA club championships. Small places, uncharted in Google maps, with no more than a single pub, a church and a three-teacher school can go all the way to All-Ireland club glory on St Patrick's Day.

Samoa is a small place bonded by the same shared sense of national identity, a love of family and faith.

This is no trivial nation. Pat Lam, the Connacht coach, who is of Samoan extraction, speaks on an RTE podcast of the singing, the dancing and the prayers.

Many of their players will not play on a Sunday. Rugby was brought to Samoa by the Marist Fathers. The sport is now the national game.

The Samoans are a religious and spiritual people. The two don't always go together in the way we practice our faith, but the Samoans really do believe in the power of prayer and draw on those who have passed on to help those left behind.

Peter Fatialofa died suddenly from a heart attack on Tuesday last. Peter led his country in a World Cup and has been decorated by the queen for services to rugby. The Samoan rugby families are bound by shared blood and love of homeland.

They will be praying and playing for the soul of Peter Fatialofa today in the Aviva Stadium. Fats, as he was known, settled in New Zealand and his day job was the ideal for a prop forward. He was a piano mover.

Make no mistake, the islanders will be well up for this. Just watch out for their version of the Haka – the Siva Tau.

There is also a very real sense of grievance, which is a powerful incentive for any team.

Ireland's next two games are against Australia and New Zealand. Both matches are sell-outs. Samoa's next two games are against Georgia and the French Barbarians. It is unlikely the Samoan people will travel by Kon Tiki for the game. There will be no more at their matches than you'd get at a good movie in the omniplex.

Is this fair? No, it isn't. It seems the IRB are trying to help Samoan rugby with Regulation 9, but, at the same time, they are intent on maintaining the status quo.

This evening's game is the only match Samoa will play in the November series against a Tier 1 country. There hasn't been any great protest from the Samoans. You sense they are in some way grateful for the progress that has been made in recent years and are afraid that by growing too militant they might stop the march of progress.

It is the classic dilemma of the oppressed. How far do you go with protest when some progress has been made by subservience and cap doffing?

There is the powerful club lobby to contend with. Nearly all of the Samoans have professional contracts. The Samoans are well paid and, hopefully, will return home with enough to last them the rest of their lives.

The national team has benefited too. There was a time when some of the Samoan players were unfit. Clubs have strict fitness regimes and the Samoans are the beneficiaries.

But there's a downside. Clubs see their players as entries on balance sheets. Sport reflects life and the shifting allegiances of the politics of international economics are changing the definition of patriotism.

The big trans-global businesses are the new conquistadores. Some are run by benevolent men and women. Most are not.

The quest for riches has always been the catalyst for conquest. So it is that some of the big rugby clubs are putting their own commercial interests before the good of the game.

The idiots in charge of the French and English rugby unions donated their sovereignty to the marketplace.

The French and English unions weren't even paid for giving away the rights over their own players.

The IRFU got it right at the time and we owe a huge debt to the decision-makers. Would that those who run the Irish game were always so wise.

The top soccer club teams are far better than the national sides of the countries in which they play. This is the most tangible proof of the rise and rise of the corporate nations.

The Samoans will try their utmost to do their protesting on the pitch. The scoreboard cannot be finessed.

Samoa are missing some key players, but they will put it up to an undercooked Ireland team.

We always cheer for the motherland. Ireland is an all-island team. For many a year our rugby team bound us together as a nation when all else was torn apart.

Let's hope we can win this match, as the next two will be very difficult indeed.

But we sincerely hope another island team, from the other side of the world, will give a very good account of themselves in Dublin today.

Irish Independent

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