Rugby players overseas left to reflect on measles over lonely festive season

The period leading up to Christmas can always be tough for Samoan professional rugby players plying their trade far from home in Europe.

Spending this holiday season was made even tougher by the measles epidemic that broke out in Samoa over the last few months of the year, claiming 81 lives as of December 29th.

“It’s something that we’re still reflecting on to be honest,” Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (P.R.P.W.) chief executive officer, Daniel Leo, said.

“When you’re far away you probably don’t realise the true impact until you get home, and for some of the guys they don’t know when that is.”

Former Manu Samoa lock Leo said it was incredibly sad for the Pacific rugby community in Europe watching on from afar:

“Every morning you’re waking up and checking the news, and the death toll is just going up at a rate of 2-3 a day.”

The epidemic continued through mid-December, when P.R.P.W.’s board members met up in France for their annual meeting.

“There was a lot of tears around that,” Leo said.

“It’s just trying to remain present while we’re absent, and the only way we can really do that is by helping out financially.”

Members of P.R.P.W. have put various memorabilia items up for auction with all the proceeds and other donations going to the families of victims through La’auli Sir Michael Jones’ Alofa mo Samoa campaign.

“When something like this happens, you realise there’s a lot more in life… sometimes you need those sorts of things to give you a bit of perspective,” Daniel Leo said.

Even under normal circumstances, the holiday season comes with time away from sport for Samoa and the Pacific more generally.

However it’s only the weather that cools down in European rugby, with the top leagues all playing through Christmas and New Year’s.

“When you’re playing and playing well, this can be one of the best times because you’re playing in big games over here,” Leo said.

For example, the P.R.P.W. boss got to see Manu Samoa hooker Elia Elia start for Harlequins in their 30-30 draw with Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester – which was played in front of over 75,000 fans at Twickenham the weekend before last.

“But it doesn’t take much and the tables can turn very quickly,” Leo said. 

If you’re not getting on the right side of the bounce of the ball in terms of selection or injury, it can become a very lonely time as well, when you’re looking at friends and family on the other side of the world together and enjoying themselves.”

And the symptoms of that loneliness can manifest in disciplinary problems.

“Off-the-field issues that present themselves in the form of drinking too much, or going home and not coming back because they’re lonely here,” Leo said.

He said P.R.P.W. wants community to be a solution for that going forward.

“We’ve encouraged the members to set up their own little villages all over Europe where they can come together and celebrate together,” Leo said.

“You’re never far away from another Pacific Islander, wherever you are in Europe there’s little pockets.”

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