It upsets Sam Tuitupou, the rugged former All Black and fiercely proud Tongan, that his Pasifika people are being let down by their own, with players neglected and World Rugby funds vanishing across the Islands. During last year’s World Cup, Tongan internationals were given £300 per match, money which frequently arrived late or simply never appeared at all.
Nasi Manu, their No8, told RugbyPass of how the squad fretted over payments, kit and logistics. At one stage they were even on the brink of mutiny.
In Fiji, the deeply unsettling Francis Kean affair cast a cloud over the recent World Rugby election. Chairman of the Fiji Rugby Union and head of the nation’s correctional service, Kean was convicted of manslaughter in 2007 and faces accusations of homophobia, discrimination and ordering the beatings of prisoners and prison guards. He is also the brother-in-law of Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama.
Against this backdrop of flawed authority, Tuitupou yearns to make a difference. He is on the board of the not-for-profit Pacific Rugby Players Welfare organisation, an influential and hugely important group headed up by Dan Leo that advocates for fairness and helps vulnerable Islanders make the most of their talents, avoid exploitation and establish career paths outside of the sport.
After retiring as a player last year, Tuitupou became a registered agent. He is a powerful voice for change – and there is serious change needed close to home. “We know what the problem is – we are fighting against ourselves,” said the former Blues, Worcester, Munster and Sale centre to RugbyPass. “I don’t like to get into politics, but all that money that World Rugby have put in, you wonder where it’s gone and what it’s been used for.
“There were talks recently about World Rugby holding back funds because of the misuse of money on the Islands, especially Tonga with the problems they are having. It’s a typical Island thing – old-school, everyone looking out for themselves and their friends instead of the whole. You can understand where World Rugby is coming from, but if they do stop funding, things are not going to improve for Tonga.”
The problem is the Pacific are unwieldy. Political interference is frequent, greed and corruption common. With no professional infrastructure, players leave so that their skills can deliver food to the mouths of their village. World Rugby supplies financial support and coaching expertise, but perhaps what is really needed are benevolent administrators stationed on the Islands, those who understand the people and the culture, the game and how to run it.
“Some of the Island teams go through coaches like rugby jerseys [Samoa have had four in eight years],” Tuitupou said. “And you’ve got to consider the funding of wages for those coaches. There are loads of problems, but if we can just get someone in charge that’s got a mindset it’s about the rugby and the future and the players coming through, then things would work out.
“There’s loads of young talent coming through the Islands but there’s no academy there for them to be able to grow and compete. That’s why a lot of them go to Australia or New Zealand. People say they wouldn’t have made it if not for those countries, which is true, but if we had that sort of system in the Islands, then they would have made it anyway.”
After Bill Beaumont’s re-election as World Rugby chairman, PRPW are keen to hold him accountable to his manifesto. The ex-England captain pledged to grow the game, to craft a more “representative and diverse international federation”, and has spoken of the need for better and financially viable competition for the emerging Test sides.
“There were promises that he has mentioned prior to being re-elected and that’s something we need to push on while it’s fresh, to make those promises actually progress,” Tuitupou continued.
“It would be disappointing if things were said but four years later, little has changed. Maybe a new guy at the top would have been good, but Bill has been voted in so it’s about improving things that we are not happy about and making sure what he offered to tier two teams comes to pass. If we leave it, we’re just going to be brushed over and before we know it, it’s another three years down the line.”
At the age of 37, Tuitupou ended a sparkling innings a year ago, bringing down the curtain after helping Coventry win promotion from England’s third tier and consolidate their place in the Championship. He earned nine New Zealand caps, two NPC titles and a Super Rugby crown, and was thunderously popular at his four clubs in Britain and Ireland.
In setting up his own agency, ProFifteen, he draws on the trying experience of his transition north back in 2007. Arriving in Worcester from Auckland, he was struck by the weather, the style of rugby and the barbs of the press. “World-class guys come up from the southern hemisphere, they don’t perform, and then they get slated in the media – ‘waste of money’,” reflected Tuitupou.
“It all comes down to, why is he not performing? If your family is not happy, that’s going to have a massive effect on performance. A lot of boys don’t realise how really tough the rugby is over here – the coaching, the playing conditions, the pitches. It’s a lot different to Super Rugby.
“All of a sudden, they’re not performing and a lot more pressure is put on them from media, the club, presidents, and it just bubbles up. That’s why guys end up just moving back to New Zealand and coming back to their comfort zone. For me, it’s about having that relationship with the clubs as well, so I can help them identify why Pacific Islanders are not performing, or help them to help the Pacific Islands boys. I’ve been able to help clubs, and I’m happy to answer calls in the middle of the night – especially to boys who are ringing from New Zealand.”
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Playing for Coventry opened Tuitupou’s eyes to the hardships that exist below the riches of the Premiership. ProFifteen represents a dozen players – some Pacific Islanders, some not – at various levels of the English game. Tuitupou does the networking, the research and the negotiations. His wife Liz helps families settle into new areas, schools and jobs. It is his way of helping those who often need it most while forging a new career that he finds enormously rewarding.
“I believe the lower you go, the more help those players need. The guys lower down are the guys with the real issues. Clubs try and chance it – they put in certain clauses that boys don’t really read or understand, they just look at the dollar sign. Or clubs will say one thing and put another in the contract. There are termination clauses that players don’t really examine – a few have been stung with that.
“A lot of clubs, I don’t hear from, but it’s important for me to ring them up and chat to them to find out why. For me, it’s not all about the money, I want to help the clubs and most importantly my player – even if we give the agent fee back to the player to help them or support the club. You do the good stuff now and it’ll come back to you later in life – that’s what I believe.”
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