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Leo hits out at political interference in rugby

Political interference and their impact on results are still top of mind for former Manu Samoa lock and founder of the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, Daniel Leo.

In an interview with The Rugby Paper, a weekly rugby magazine in the United Kingdom, Leo warned his association will not remain silent on these issues. 

He urged World Rugby (W.R.) to take seriously political interference in the game, saying that if it doesn’t his union will have no choice but to escalate matters to the International Olympic Committee.

Specifically, he was speaking in response to the matter of Fijian Francis Kean, who as Chair of the Fiji Rugby Union (F.R.U.) stood for election to the W.R. executive committee earlier this year.

Kean, who is also Prime Minister and F.R.U. President Frank Bainimarama’s brother-in-law, was convicted of manslaughter in 2007 for killing a guest at the Prime Minister’s daughter’s wedding. 

“If the governance issues within Pacific Island’s rugby are not properly dealt with, then P.R.P.W. will have no choice other than to take the matter to the IOC and let them decide if these corrupt administrators are people they want involved in their Olympics,” Mr. Leo said.

“We will not be silenced, this has gone for too long.”

He said World Rugby has shown it doesn’t want to “get their hands dirty,” especially in the case of Samoa where the Prime Minister is also Chair of the Samoa Rugby Union, something W.R. ought to avoid. 

Whereas the International Federation of Association Football (F.I.F.A.) does not allow political interference in the game, Leo said W.R. needs to answer why it allows it in rugby.

“Through all the research I’ve put in, it’s apparent there’s a massive shortfall in the policies and regulations at W.R,” he said.

“You can be any kind of criminal but there’s nothing in W.R. policy to exclude you from reaching the highest levels of the game. The regulations do not match the sport in terms of professionalism, particularly an Olympic sport.”

He said the case of Samoa proves why the union’s leadership shouldn’t be mixed in with the country’s politics.

Under Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr.  Sailele Malielegaoi, who became Chair in 2014, Samoa has gone from seventh to 15th place in the world rankings.

“So what bigger red flag do you need to say things are wrong,” Leo asked.

“If I was W.R., I’d want to know where my millions were going. They have put a significant amount of money into the Pacific Islands, around £20 million (T$67.1 million over four years we’ve been told, but where has that gone?

“We’ve made no impression at World Cups and I’d want better results.”

In 2014, amidst financial concerns and transparency issues, Leo led the Manu Samoa in a threat to boycott their game against England at Twickenham Stadium. The strike never went ahead, but Leo maintains he was trying to save the game in Samoa.

Asked by the Rugby Paper about it, he admits he regrets not going through with the strike. 

“W.R. promised us the Samoan regime would be properly investigated and action taken. Well, the same guy is in charge and the same problems exist in Samoan rugby now, so we should have refused to play.”

More than five years later, Leo said he still has not seen enough change or leadership from W.R. 

He said he hopes some structural changes around eligibility and the prospect of a global season of rugby (where the northern and southern hemisphere seasons are combined) may improve the industry for Pacific Island players, but until their homes are in order not much will change.

“It’s a combination of things that will make the Pacific Islands strong but a lot of it still comes back to governance,” he said.

“You can pump in as much money as you like and restructure things, but if you have the wrong people in charge it’s a waste of time.”

Prime Minister Tuilaepa has been approached for comment.

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