Number of Samoans in top European rugby expected to drop
Diminishing opportunities for Pacific Island players in Europe is a key area of concern for Pacific Rugby Players Welfare in 2020.
The union’s Chief Executive Officer, former Manu Samoa lock, Daniel Leo, said the fear of player numbers decreasing was a theme of the annual Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (P.R.P.W.) Board meeting in Montpellier, France last month.
“We project of the players that are coming off contract this year, about 22-23 percent of those aren’t going to pick up contracts here in France or England,” Leo said.
“The hardest-hit amongst that group we’re envisioning is Samoans and Tongans, they’re really falling out of favour over here in Europe.”
Leo said it would be a lot of players to be coming out of the game:
“They’ve got families that rely on their incomes, they aren’t necessarily prepared for the end of their careers, but that’s the reality that they’re facing; going home and getting back into the workforce wherever home may be, or staying here.”
There are a number of factors which Leo said contribute to the current and forecasted climate, including the poor performance of particularly the Samoan national team over the last few years.
“We’re finding that a lot more Fijians are getting picked up in the [English] Premiership whereas when I was playing 10-15 years ago it was a lot more Samoans,” he said.
Leo said what clubs require from their players has been changing as well.
“For a long time we’ve seen Pacific Islanders have been impact players, those guys that come on and do something extraordinary, but aren’t expected to play 80 minutes,” he said.
But that’s not the archetype European clubs are looking for anymore.
“Teams are wanting 80 minute players…, so we need to reinvent ourselves that way,” Leo said.
He said a recent influx of South African players to Europe, with similar physical attributes to those from the Pacific Islands, has taken away some of the places that were available, and that clubs are still reluctant to contract players they have to release for international fixtures.
A change in how clubs generally build their squads is also a factor according to the P.R.P.W boss:
“What’s happening now is a lot more money is going to the marquee players, and there’s been a big drop-off on the middle-class.
“There’s no middle-ground anymore; squads are likely to have either a big-name player or an unknown quantity, an academy player or something.”
Leo said with some exceptions, a lot of the Pacific Islander professionals fit into that overlooked middle bracket.
He hopes emerging markets like Global Rapid Rugby and the United States’ Major League Rugby (MLR) can pick up some of the shortfall if and when European-based players miss out on contracts.
The MLR already has recent Manu Samoa players Dwayne Polataivao, Donald Brighouse, Danny Tusitala, Sakaria Taulafo and Kane Thompson on board at clubs across America.
Leo said part of his group’s job is to change the perceptions of Pacific Islanders, particularly so in France, as people in addition to being players.
“Those perceptions around us being crazy drinkers, going away on holiday and not coming back, coming back two weeks late, and just not being faithful around the terms of our contracts, is just unwanted negativity around the whole contractual process,” Leo said.
“We need to disseminate the message to our members – there’s a generation relying on us
“Contracts aren’t just a given over here now. We really need, particularly our high-profile players, to really lead by example.
“We want to see Pacific Islanders coming to Europe and establishing lives here, and earning good money to send back to their families for a long time.”