Mapusua: Pacific Island rugby still poor cousin

NEW ROLE: Blockbusting England centre Manu Tuilagi has been moved to the wing for the second test against the All Blacks tomorrow night.
NEW ROLE: Blockbusting England centre Manu Tuilagi has been moved to the wing for the second test against the All Blacks tomorrow night.

It was a quiet meeting and it passed with little fanfare and even less media attention. Five months ago, a group of men of Pacific Island heritage, most of them former rugby players, met a group of men who run international rugby, several also ex-players.

The subject of discussion was the health and future of Polynesian rugby. And the message was clear. One is poor, the other is heading towards terminal.

The first group were from the newly-formed Pacific Islands Players' Association (PIPA). Their detailed presentation was to the International Rugby Board (IRB).

Fairfax Media has obtained some of the material and it paints a striking picture.

For example, there are currently 632 players eligible to play at test level for Island nations. Of them, 272 play rugby overseas. But only 198 are actually available to play for Samoa, Tonga or Fiji. That means 74 players have fallen through the cracks and been lured to rival nations.

"It comes down to opportunities," former Samoan midfielder Seilala Mapusua explains. "There's 30 or 40 that have played for the All Blacks. To me they're still New Zealanders. They're just of Pacific Island decent.

"A guy like Manu Tuilagi playing for England - I think good on him. He's now able to look after his family and set himself up.

"But it's a shame that they're not playing for their country of heritage. That's what we're trying to do with PIPA. To even out the playing field so they will choose to play for the Pacific Island teams knowing they're going to be looked after."

It has become painfully apparent to even the most casual of international rugby fans that a vicious cycle which strips Pacific rugby of its best talent is entrenched in the game and that little is being done about it.

For some it has become too much. Frustrated by a series of perceived injustices, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu became a serial tweeter during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He bombarded the IRB with accusations that ultimately achieved little more than his banishment from the game.

Others have tried to be a little more subtle but met the same equally stiff opposition.

To some degree, PIPA is the last roll of the dice for New Zealand's Pacific Island colleagues. They feel the only way forward is to empower current players and create the foundation for one strong and united voice.

Mapusua, who has 26 tests for Samoa under his wing, is an influential figure in PIPA along with former Fijian captain and Chiefs prop, Deacon Manu (13 tests), former Southland flanker Hale T-Pole (24 for Tonga) and former Samoan captain Mahonri Schwalger (36 tests).

PIPA has also linked with the New Zealand and International Players' Associations, securing support as well as additional political nous to push for change. There's no promise of an altered landscape overnight. But, finally, there is a starting point.

Before these latest efforts, the richly talented South Pacific remained largely neglected.

Until now, there has been no united front. No one to ensure that IRB funding - up to $7 million per year - was channelled to the right areas; a weakness in the past where personal greed and a lust for individual status have undermined Pacific rugby.

Players, clubs and national unions all had their own agendas.

"There's no quick fix," NZPA boss Rob Nichol said. "We've still got a lot of work to do. I'd like to think over the next 12 months the IRB, clubs and tier-two nations can improve on some of the challenges."

At the heart of the domino effect is a conflict between high-powered international clubs and country.

During the 2011 RWC - a tournament featuring 120 players who were either born in the Islands or considered themselves Islanders - then-Samoa assistant coach Tom Coventry revealed to the Sunday News that players were offered "money, accommodation, and vehicles" by clubs to not play for their home unions.

That only tells half the story. Players also deliberately opt out of national duty, choosing instead more lucrative alternative pathways to secure their future.

In the current climate, it's easy to empathise.

All professional Island players are based overseas, and income from clubs is their livelihood. Statistics show players of Island heritage now feature on the books of virtually every major club operating in a professional environment. But to represent their country, these same players must sacrifice more than others.

Unavailability for their club means lost wages. Their absence jeopardises contract renewals. They often have to personally top-up partially IRB-funded insurance premiums - some clubs demand up to $200,000 in cover - and pay their own airfares to camps.

"It can quite often cost the player, not just in lost income but in hard cash, to play for their country," Nichol said. "That's the reality of the situation at the moment. For a number of players who are doing very well [for their clubs] the IRB cover is not enough."

When Mapusua played for London Irish he compared test earnings with his English counterparts before an international against Samoa.

"The English boys were getting £11,000 [NZ$21,608] per game," he recalls. "We were getting $1000 allowance with no bonuses or base salary."

The All Blacks, for the record, receive $7500 per week in camp.

Through the formation of PIPA, Nichol hopes to negotiate some revenue-sharing model for tests involving tier-one teams and Island nations.

Barriers don't end there, though. With limited finances resources are compromised.

"You have players going from some of the very best clubs in the world to touring with what is effectively an amateur team," Nichol said.

Lack of expertise contributes to clubs becoming frustrated at the poor condition their players can return in.

"Just getting treatment, the physio is working well into the early hours of the morning," Mapusua said. "Having the resources available, it's a massive difference coming from a club to playing for the Island teams."

Governance is another major concern.

Schwalger sacrificed his international career by speaking out against mismanagement of the Samoan team, and political interference. Had PIPA been around, his grievances could have been addressed privately.

Having brought together players such as Schwalger, who have been at the coal face of these pressing issues, PIPA is well-positioned to rid the Island nations of corruption claims and help administrators come to grips with professionalism.

As far as long-term solutions go, there are no simple answers. But unless a philanthropist comes forward, including an Island team in Super Rugby expansion seems a pipe-dream, even in Auckland, the world's largest Polynesian city.

A more realistic - and achievable - goal is to strengthen pathways and relationships with wealthy northern hemisphere clubs.

In much the same way that New Zealand Rugby League benefits greatly because 15 Australian NRL franchises feature players from this side of the Tasman on their books, Pacific nations need to facilitate opportunities for young players in the French Top 14, English Premiership, Celtic competitions and Japanese leagues, while setting strict parameters around international availability.

At present, New Zealand Super Rugby teams can each contract two foreigners. This often forces players of Pacific decent to change their allegiance, or turn down the Islands. Japan and Europe are much more lax in this regard, making them appear the logical alternative for Island players facing huge challenges.

PIPA representatives say they got a good hearing from the IRB in June. The proof, of course, is yet to be delivered.

But in a year when Peter Fatialofa's passing reminded us all of just how long ago the battle for recognition began, rugby fans can only hope the will is found for a way.


Professional players of Pacific Island descent:

UK & Ireland: 78
Japan: 76
Australian Super Rugby teams: 36
New Zealand Super Rugby teams: 60
NPC: 141
Italy & Romania: 9

Total: 632  

Pacific Islanders playing international rugby:

Tonga: 69
Samoa: 63
Fiji: 66
New Zealand (including sevens) 40
Japan: 14
Australia: 8
England (including sevens) 5
France: 3
USA: 2
Wales: 1
Scotland: 1

Total: 272

* As of late October

Sunday News