Uneven world rugby field needs levelling: Toleafoa John Campbell

Years after the All Blacks made their historic first appearance on island to play Manu Samoa in 2015, conditions for Pacific Island rugby players remain stubbornly unfavourable. 

Players from places such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga become ineligible to represent their home countries once they have played for another nation, often leaving them no chance of an extended international career in the sport.

And, though these rules apply to all players, it hits those from Tier 2 nations uniquely hard, because home players leave those nations if they want to maximise their career earnings, leaving those countries with less talent, less audiences, less money and a self-reinforcing cycle. 

Two months out from the Rugby World Cup, TVNZ journalist Toleafoa John Campbell has returned to Samoa, where Manu Samoa will play Ikale Tahi Tonga on Saturday, to remind audiences of this disparity.

He is hoping that World Rugby will do something to address the situation and that New Zealand Rugby, in particular, will show leadership.

“I think [Tier 1] are just interested in having the best teams they can possibly have; the most choice they can possible have,” Toleafoa said.

“There is such a rich player pool they now have access too, that they would have less access to if there were professional leagues in the South Pacific".

Tier 1 nations (which include top three New Zealand, Wales and Ireland) need to try harder to have World Rugby fix the issues in its laws which keep Pacific players away from their home teams, but it is “not in their interests".

The issue is complex. Tight eligibility laws, combined with attractive salaries in European rugby clubs or the New Zealand system mean promising Pacific rugby players are less and less likely to play for their motherlands.

“The moment you show promise as a brilliant young player in Fiji, Tonga or Samoa, suddenly New Zealand schools are interested in you, you go into the New Zealand system; you play Mitre 10 Cup rugby; you play Super Rugby; and then next minute you are in the national team,” he said.

“And Samoa can’t compete because there is no money.

“So if you have a gift and you want – entirely reasonably – to make money off of that gift, the only way you can do so is to leave Samoa.”

Toleafoa wants to change the eligibility rules to allow these players to represent other countries when Tier 1, salary-paying nations stop picking them.

In New Zealand, he says, excellent Pacific players can be picked for short-term purposes, but they are still locked away from the rest of their international career.

“Sometimes [New Zealand] pick players to cover injuries or because we are going to Japan on a marketing tour and we are resting our best players, and the moment we have picked them they are not eligible for Samoa, Tonga or Fiji,” said Toleafoa.

“Should a guy who has played two or three tests for the All Blacks, who has since then been discarded, not have an international career because of rugby rules?

“World Rugby can solve it simply by saying if you played fewer than ten tests and it has been a year since you played for a Tier 1 country, you can go down to a Tier 2 nation. It is that simple.” 

Not only are the Tier 1 rugby teams more competitive, they earn serious money. Successful seasons mean top sponsorship deals and expensive television rights, all of which can make the All Blacks or the Wallabies more attractive than the Manu Samoa.

So, when a Pacific Island player does want to sacrifice a European or New Zealand contract to play for home, not only are they locked out of continuing their international professional career but also blocked from a salary which could set them up for life, because their home teams cannot pay them as much.

“There are players here at the cost of a significant amount of income to come and represent their country, whereas in New Zealand the players are paid a significant amount of income to represent their country,” said Toleafoa.

Some Northern Hemisphere seasons are beginning over the next few months and Samoan players have chosen the blue jersey over a full season with their European club.

Last month, Samoan player Belgium Tuatagaloa chose to play for Samoa in the Pacific Nations Cup (P.N.C.) and the management of his French club, the Valance Romans, opted not to re-sign.

Stuff’s David Long reports that Tuatagaloa was mid-negotiations when selected for the P.N.C. but, on his account, was told the prospect he might perform well enough at the P.N.C. to advance to the national World Cup team was the reason the team management gave him for not offering a deal. 

Pride and patriotism aside, Samoa has no financial draw for talented rugby players trying to make a career out of the sport. And there is no pathway to a substantial professional league without those players, Toleafoa said.

“The only way we can have a professional league in the Pacific is if first of all, the Pacific is able to have players good enough for them to win games.

“When you start winning the odd game you win more games, you get a bigger TV audience, and you get sponsors,” he said.

Samoa won’t get either until the Tier 1 nations relinquish their hold on star players from the region, and also start playing Tier 2 nations.

“If you were able to retain your stars, if the Tier 1 nations bothered to come here from time to time and bothered to play the Pacific countries, then the TV rights would have some value,” Toleafoa said.

“If Samoa, Tonga or Fiji were routinely playing the All Blacks and being watched by large audiences then sponsors would pay money to put their name on their shirts. 

"Money comes with the games and the players.”

On Wednesday, Toleafoa was bestowed with his title by the Head of State, His Highness Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi II, in honour of his support of Samoan rugby, including his campaign to have the All Blacks play Manu Samoa in Samoa for the first time in 2015.

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