Wednesday 23 October 2019

Islanders fighting uphill battle on an unequal playing field

Daniel Leo (R) tries to escape South African winger Bryan Habana during the 2007 World Cup. Photo: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Leo (R) tries to escape South African winger Bryan Habana during the 2007 World Cup. Photo: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When the story of past World Cups is told, Samoa feature heavily on the highlights reel.

The Islanders have a rich heritage in this tournament having reached the 1991 and 1995 quarter-finals, but since the 2011 edition of the tournament they have been on something of a decline amidst mismanagement and pressure from the increasingly powerful clubs.

Former international Daniel Leo has taken up the cause on behalf of his old team-mates as head of Pacific Rugby Players' Welfare.

Along with their fellow Island nations Fiji and Tonga, Samoa has given much to this tournament but it gets little back in return.

With the big-spending French and English clubs actively stopping players from representing their country and rugby's residency laws acting against them, it is hard to argue that this World Cup is a level playing field.

During the recent Pacific Nations Championship, New Zealand journalist Michael Campbell spent a week in Samoa to observe how Ireland's pool opponents are preparing for the tournament.

He spoke to coach Steve Jackson about the challenge of convincing players to come and play when their contracts are at risk, to captain Ben Lam about the financial jeopardy he put himself into by opting to turn down a deal and pay his own way to represent his country, and to winger Belgium Tuatagaloa who built a house for his mother with money earned in France's third tier, but who came home to make his international debut. When he told her of his selection, her reaction was to ask about his contract.

Money

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"The piece kind of summed it up, we don't do it for money. You do it for family, village, church pride, all those things," Leo explains. "Unfortunately, in the professional game it's a bit lost these days.

"The beauty of the Irish system is your players are still playing for their regions, there is still pride in the jersey, but for a lot of us who come here (to Europe) it's not the same.

"You can't replace that. It doesn't matter how much money you're paid, you can't put a price on that.

"Times are changing, the gap is getting wider between the haves and the have-nots in rugby. It's making it harder for players to make that decision. I can understand that having been there myself, but it was definitely the highlight of my career - any time you got together in Samoa camp.

"What's more difficult now is the pressure you come under to not go and play for Samoa."

In the week of their one home match against Tonga, which was played in dreadful conditions in Apia, the players joined a national telethon to try and raise funds for their preparations.

Because the union is not self-sufficient, the government step in to help financially but they demand their pound of flesh when it comes to influence over decisions. Funding from World Rugby is not as forthcoming as it is in Fiji due to concern over governance, so the problems are confounded.

"It's not an ideal situation when you have half of the squad meeting for the first time, barely a month from the Rugby World Cup," Leo says.

"I still expect them to put in decent performances for the country because the skills are there. We've got the players, the thing we're lacking is the organisation and the time to get organised.

"In my time it was pushing a wheelbarrow down the street, business owners, friends and families would come out on the High Street and fill it with cash. This year, it's a Telethon. Things haven't changed, that's the sad thing."

Ireland's Bundee Aki was born in New Zealand to Samoan parents, while England's Manu Tuilagi was born in Samoa but moved to England as a child. Both could play for Samoa, but choose to play elsewhere.

Leo says there are no grudges about their decisions, but he'd like to see them be allowed to represent Samoa when they've finished.

"We're so proud of our boys who go on to represent other countries, we just wish there was an opportunity for those boys to give back to their countries of heritage when they are no longer wanted," Leo explains.

Identity

"The world is changing. Migration has led to the notion of identity and eligibility, of how you see yourself is changing all the time.

"And the current laws that one person is only one thing for their whole life is archaic. We need to look for a new model that honours the heritage and pathway that some of these players have taken."

As the European nations increase the limits on overseas players at their clubs, those who qualify for the Pacific Islands and often provide for large families back home will feel the squeeze.

As a result, days like Samoa's win over Wales in 1991 become less likely even if Leo hasn't given up hope of a shock in Japan.

"I don't expect them to get out of the pool. Turning up in the circumstances and getting a scalp or two... I think two wins out of the pool would be deemed a success given the build-up and just the state of our union at the moment," he says.

"Hopefully, they prove me wrong. If we can beat Scotland, that will be a real feather in the cap."

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