Club vs. country: Same rhetoric, different World Cup year

It’s a tough one, isn’t it? But it’s not a new issue for Samoan rugby and other nations considered “minnows” in the rugby world.

We are talking about the never-ending challenge posed by club vs. country, an issue that has once again reared its ugly head a few months out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Indeed, people who follow rugby closely in this part of the world know that this issue always pops up right about now.

Somewhere somehow there is always someone threatening to stop minnow countries from fielding their best teams, one way or another. Which is precisely what appears to be happening again.

The story titled “New Manu players included, some opt out ahead of World Cup” gave us that dejavu feeling all over again. Published in yesterday’s Samoa Observer, it is a pity.

A few months out from the World Cup, this is not what a team like the Manu Samoa needs. They already have enough on their plate. Struggling with funding and poor form, the coaching staff and the team’s leadership group shouldn’t have to worry about this.

What strikes us as unusual is that after all these years; no one seems to have found a solution. It’s as if the issue exists as a convenient excuse by the powers that be to sabotage any chance by a minnow team to go far.

Now listen to Manu Samoa coach, Vaeluagaomatagi Steve Jackson, again. Talking about the World Cup squad, he warned that there would be “speculation” as to why some expected names are off the list. The answer?

“Club over country,” he said. “There will be speculation about players that aren’t there and it’s purely because they have made themselves unavailable.”

The coach would not divulge the identities of the players except to say that “there was a few, I can tell you. It’s pretty much club over country which is the reality we deal with at the moment.”

For senior players Jack Lam and Alapati Leiua, they would have seen it over the years.

“Obviously it’s quite sad that our players even have to be put in that position where they have to choose club over country,” Lam said.

“For some of those players, they have to look after their families and they have chosen to do that, and for others it’s a  matter of how much do you really want to play for Samoa and how much do you want to play in the jersey.”

Lam is absolutely correct. At the end of the day, it comes down to what an individual player considers as his priority. While pride for country and family is one thing, rugby puts food on the table for these players. It’s something Samoan rugby cannot do when it has no money. Many of these players take a huge risk when they leave their clubs to represent their countries.

Which is why the voice of former Manu Samoa, Daniel Leo, continues to be one of reason when it comes to the issue of changing eligibility rules. Speaking to TVNZ, he said the richer tier one nations need to "release their grip" on the game if rugby is to grow globally. This includes allowing professional players who are not needed by these big teams to turn up for other countries.

"For me that’s a no brainer. It’s something that wouldn’t cost anything to change," he says.

"It would be an easy way to help smaller nations and smaller populations on less resources, and it’s something that wouldn’t break World Rugby’s bank too."

"This is a non-monetary way that we could invest into teams, not just the Pacific Islands, other tier two nations as well would hugely benefit from getting some of their players back who may have been capped for other countries."

Leo warned that without financial incentive for players to play professionally at home the game will struggle to grow.

"That’s the issue with the current eligibility laws, is that you make that decision based not on your loyalty necessarily to a jumper, but on your economic situation,” he said.

"And not just that of you personally but in a lot of Pacific Islanders’ case that of your family.

"And the reality of the sport at the moment is that if I was to play for the All Blacks, or for England, or for Ireland, I’ll make a heck of a lot more than if I play for Samoa or Fiji."

"That’s only going to change if some of these richer nations release their grip on the financing of the game and get behind this policy change."

Leo couldn’t have said it better and we could not agree more. But then this talk is old; this is the same rhetoric we hear every year the World Cup comes around. We are tired of it to be quite honest.

Chances are that after this latest round, nothing will come from it. Typical.

To be fair to Coach Vaeluaga, at least he is trying to be positive.

“It is what it is, and we can’t have players that want to second guess playing for the jersey, we want guys that are hungry and want to be there,” he said. “There will be some new players coming into camp in the next few days and that is exciting in and of itself.”

His optimism is to be commended.

But then again, this issue is probably a nice distraction from the real story, which is that a couple of months out from the World Cup, Samoan rugby is far from being prepared judging from its recent form during the Pacific Nations Cup.

The good news is that miracles still happen and there are a few days from now until 24 September 2019 when Manu Samoa takes on Russia in its first World Cup match. Let’s pray.

Have a wonderful weekend Samoa, God bless!

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