Sport Rugby

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Out of sight but not out of mind

Neil Francis believes the South Sea Island nations are being hung out to dry by the game's masters

The autumn series in the northern hemisphere came to a lumbering conclusion yesterday, a series of turkey shoots, sterile disposals and broken stalemates which reinforced the notion that the international game is drifting along in a sea of apathy.

As usual the most exciting action happened off the paddock supplementing the view that Barnum & Bailey still pull the strings when it comes to governance and direction.

The reason Ireland's game with Fiji was played in Thomond Park and why there were no caps awarded is already in the public domain. Any perceived slight on Fiji was waived after the first 15 minutes. They quite obviously held no grudge that they were not worthy of a cap on the day, nor were they worth one. Their team was obviously weakened by the non-availability of key players.

This brings us neatly on to Munster's newly-appointed backs coach Simon Mannix. A talented player and a successful backs coach to boot. Back in January, Mannix appeared on Total Rugby Radio, an IRB media tool which invites high-profile rugby people to express their views and opinions.

Chris Rea, the respected rugby journalist and media frontman, had Stephen Jones, Phil Greening and Mannix on the line from Paris. Rea invited the boys to reflect on the World Cup. The flow of conversation ended up on the Tier 2 nations and how they performed. Jones made the point that Northampton's exceptional lock Samu Manoa, who is qualified to play for the USA, didn't end up playing for the Eagles. Not all of the reasons were clear, but finance played a part in him not going.

Mannix interjected and these are his words exactly: "That is a very interesting point. Racing Metro has four Fijians who declined to go to the World Cup and why did they decline to go to the World Cup? Because the club [Racing] gave them a cheque to stay here [in Paris]."

Last Monday, Mannix made the following statement: "The comments that were attributed to me in this broadcast should be clarified because they were distorted and do not correspond to reality. In fact, I had just wanted to say that if the club Racing Metro 92 had wanted to, they could have easily compensated the Fijians and presented a cheque to those who did not wish to participate in the World Cup. These [players] sometimes prefer to consolidate their club careers faced with the organisational difficulties of rugby in the Pacific Islands and overlapping national and international competitions and their respective calendars."

To start with, nobody attributed those comments to Mannix, they came directly out of his mouth. They did not seem distorted nor did they not correspond to reality. It seemed to me that he knew exactly what he was talking about.

The Top 14 was run as usual when the World Cup warm-up matches and the main event were taking place. As the backs coach for Racing Metro, he would without question have to know who was in his roster, who would be available and which of his international backs would be unavailable. You can't do anything if you don't know who will be there.

You have to assume that Mannix knew why four of their Fijian internationals chose to stay away from the 'festival'. Mannix would, as an officer of Racing Metro, know exactly what was going on in the club. Why would he say one thing on radio and then 11 months later claim he said something else? There is no ambiguity between "the club gave them a cheque to stay here" and "if the club had wanted to they could easily have compensated the Fijians". I'm sorry but that is bullshit. I think Mannix told the truth when he was interviewed by Chris Rea. Why would he want to retract it 11 months later?

Very embarrassing for the IRB to actually broadcast Mannix's sentiments on its flagship radio show, no seven-second delay in the editing suite. I'm sure that The Last Word on Today FM don't gamble on my knowledge of the laws of libel.

It has transpired that Sireli Bobo, one of the four Fijians retained on Racing's books, has admitted receiving a €20,000 additional payment during the World Cup that he deemed a bonus. And the influential Jobe Qova, who was picked to play in the November series against Ireland, pulled out of the tour injured but played for Racing the following week.

I contacted the IRB and they said that they had no contact with Mannix. Jackie Lorenzetti, le Père du Sucre of Racing Metro, came out with both barrels blazing: "Racing Metro have never prevented any player, neither Fijian or of another nationality from participating in the World Cup or an international tournament."

But when Fiji turned up with half a team for their tour people remembered what Mannix had said in January. The story caught fire and suddenly hard questions were being asked about regulation 9 of the IRB charter on player release and a shit storm with the Fiji Rugby Union in the van was about to appear on the IRB's doorstep.

There was an IRB executive committee meeting in Dublin on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. On Tuesday, the IRB was to decide whether to open an investigation into the matter. Mannix retracted his statement on Monday and the IRB decided not to investigate the matter any further on the Tuesday.

We got this statement the following day: "The issue of player release was discussed by the IRB Executive Committee who reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring that the best players are made available for their country if selected through IRB Regulation 9.

"The IRB considers the important regulation central to the integrity of the International Game and the next steps focus on specific follow-up meetings with the Unions where the issue is most prevalent to discuss country-specific problems in detail, assess the robustness of the application of the regulation and determine how best to combat the issues."

When it comes to PR speak, I just love the term "reaffirm their commitment", lofty and aspirational but complete marshmallow.

As the IMF/EU watchers talk about our debt issues and Europe 'kicking the can further down the road' to avoid bringing things to a head, the IRB fudge yet again. The inaction though is going to be costly and irreversible. Neither of my print media editors had any real interest in the Fiji game; if the media have no interest then the fans will soon think the same way. Why bother to turn up to watch the Fiji seconds, most of whom would have been happier playing in the Top 14 that weekend?

Once again, anyone connected with the South Sea Island Unions is left out to dry. Simon Mannix, a real rugby man, a good player, a good coach and a good fella, ended up looking like an idiot when all he was trying to do was tell it the way it was.

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