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Professional rugby is poison to the Pacific Islands

By Jonathan Beardmore
Sonatane Takulua. (Photo / Getty Images)

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OPINION: Oceans Apart makes us face up to two truths about our game. Firstly, professional rugby is poison to the Pacific Islands. Secondly, no one has a clue what they are talking about.


The documentary about rugby on the Pacific Islands, made by the admirable Dan Leo, tells us how rugby players from the archipelago carry the weight of an entire people. Sombrely it highlights the realities and injustices of the game. Some stories are systemic, some are personal – all are compelling.

But one fact stands out: Money from rugby coming into the Islands is equal to 20 per cent of the Pacific Island GDP. It is a claim so astonishing that I requested clarification from Leo. I have yet to have a reply but none the less, I’m happy to take the claim on face value.

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What does 20 per cent of GDP mean? In the UK, every bank, investment house and business that contributes to the financial services sector would only make up 7.8 per cent of GDP according to the House of Commons Library 2018. In other words, it is enormously important to the Pacific Islands.

A better comparison would be the petrostates: Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and so on. Their economies are dominated by natural resources (nine to 45 per cent according to OPEC). It would seem the Pacific Island nations have their own natural resource: sporting prowess.

Far from being a story about players whisked away to serve a feudal lord in a foreign land, Pacific Island players are loved and cherished all over the world. They are well rewarded too, often among the best-paid athletes rugby has to offer.


Money flows into the islands from rugby. A player like Charles Piutau earns about 290 times the average Tongan salary and is one of the highest-paid players in England. Not only do players like him entertain and inspire generations of children, but they also support families, friends, relatives, and build entire communities.

For the most part, players get paid by their clubs exactly what they are worth and we have, according to the documentary itself, 300 million bits of evidence to prove this.

Yet it is fair to point out that discrimination still exists. Australia’s highest-paid player was erased from the sport because he upset white liberal sensibilities. Maybe Leo is correct – the colonial mindset has not disappeared, it’s simply changed its clothes.

On the face of it, rugby is a net positive for the islands. The money is good and the opportunities are limitless but, like an industrial fertiliser, rugby enhances the growth of its chosen crop while the run-off pollutes the nearby land and tributaries.


Economists frequently point out that having an abundance of natural resources, rather than leading to prosperity, leads to distortions in the economy and corruption. Oil pipelines are more lucrative than talent pipelines but they attract the same problems and behaviours. Before long, a network of player advisors, committee members and, in the Pacific Islands’ case – politicians, show up looking for a slice of wealth and status they never earned.

Transparency International is a non-governmental organisation that takes action to combat global corruption. To this end, they have built the Corruption Perceptions Index which scores nations out of 100. The lower the score the more corrupt.

They measure factors like: government accountability, access to information on public affairs and state capture by narrow vested interests. This last point is of particular interest, as Leo has mentioned in numerous interviews.

Of the countries mentioned before, the scores are as follows: Russia 28, Venezuela 18, Nigeria 27, Saudi Arabia 49. You would do well to find any member of OPEC that has a good system of government by western standards. Unfortunately, there is not even enough data to give the Pacific Islands a score, but I doubt they would fare much better.

Wallabies Fiji
Fiji embrace Australia following last year’s RWC fixture (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The same mechanism that puts a dim-witted Saudi prince on the board at an oil refinery also ensures a thug casts the Fijian vote for the next chairman of World Rugby.

It’s not that the Pacific Island nations are anymore naturally corrupt than anyone else, they are just working to different incentives. When our political leaders leave office with their box of belongings, they take a short taxi ride to the City. In short, the extra fare to Twickenham is not worth it. But if rugby made up one-fifth of GDP in the UK, things might be different.

Now you start to realise how entrenched the problems are and why it’s unrealistic to expect World Rugby to deal with such corruption. Not that any of this is recognised by the well-intentioned rugby luminaries the documentary rolls out. The argument goes: “If only World Rugby would live up to its ‘values’ or spend an amount of money, this problem would be solved.”

This is certainly the view of journalist Stephen Jones, whose superficial take on the situation might generously be described as ill-informed. If he has a deeper comprehension of the underlying issues, he hides it well. But, in fairness, he isn’t alone.

There needs to be reforms and fairer distribution from the big unions, but trying to solve a problem that stems from money and power with more money and power is wrong-headed. If it was truly the case this was a money problem, World Rugby would have written a cheque long ago.

The loudest, most moralistic voices of the rugby commentariat make the horribly patronising and potentially racist assumption that because a nation is small or less prosperous then its politicians are somehow inferior. This could not be further from the truth. They might be self-interested, they might be corrupt and, in some cases, criminally so, but they are not incapable.

The Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, worked for the European Economic Community (EU) and Coopers & Lybrand (PWC). He is an expert in world trade and has been in the Samoan parliament since 1980. He is also the chairman of Samoan rugby and has forgotten more about politics than the average World Rugby administrator is yet to learn.

Meanwhile, in Fiji, Frances Kean, the country’s ex-rugby chairman better known as navy commander Kean, escaped jail time and has reasonably strong political connections, as we will see later.

The idea of World Rugby administrators ordering Fiji to clean up their act or explaining to Samoa why sports governance and politics should be separate is laughable. They may as well book a meeting with the Saudis to convince them about the evils of global warming. It is a view so arrogant it could only be formulated by a certain type of western mindset.

Besides, who would World Rugby send, Brett Gosper? In fairness, Gosper is not a sport’s administrator by trade. He is an advertising executive – and a very good one by all accounts. It is perfectly reasonable to say he might be the ideal man to sell the inclusive “values” of rugby union to multinational brands trying to target key demographics.

Kean, on the other hand, beat a man to death with his hands, beat a murder rap and helped orchestrate a successful military coup to put his brother-in-law in power. Gosper better have one hell of an elevator pitch.

Rugby to its credit, did rid itself of commander Kean, who was exposed as a goon and will now spend the foreseeable future in a Fijian correctional facility – albeit as commissioner of the Fiji Corrections Service.

It’s unclear what options are even valuable to World Rugby. Football, cricket and the IOC all have rules about separating the state from the sport’s national governing body. FIFA even suspended Nigeria from international competitions for government intervention. Cricket, too, had a scandal with USA Cricket but, as you can imagine, cricket might not make up 20 per cent of America’s GDP.

In both cases, the sporting governing body withheld money and/or banned the nations from international competition. With World Rugby already sensitive about the treatment of Pacific Island nations, the politics around a ban would be a disaster.

Pacific island nations
Ireland’s Bundee Aki is sent-off against Samoa last year (Photo by Getty Images)

That leaves withholding money, but that is unlikely to make any difference because, as Leo pointed out, the money in PI rugby is not from central funding but from players sending money back home in the form of remittances.

It’s impossible to know what the total remittances from rugby are but in a paper on this topic from Massy University in 2014, they concluded there were about 870 professional athletes from the Pacific nations spanning the NFL, rugby league, netball and, of course, rugby union. The total remittances then accounted for around 20 per cent of GDP but the majority came from normal jobs like nurses working in Australia, for example.

According to them, sporting remittances in 2014 made up a much smaller (but still very significant) proportion of GDP than the documentary claims they do now. The average salary in rugby union was $130,000 NZD or £67,000 in 2014. The most reliable study since of player wages comes from the player agency Esportif who claim the average Premiership Rugby salary is more like £200,000 or $382,899 NZD.

One thing that is certainly true, rugby players’ pay has rocketed since 2014. If the Oceans Apart claim is true, rugby remittances are now worth £300million across the three main PI nations and rugby’s monetary contribution to the islands since 2014 is ten to 20 times greater than 2014. That’s a funny type of exploitation.

This is not to justify the current state of affairs. It is to point out rugby’s power, wealth and influence in the Pacific Island nations are not at the gift of World Rugby shovelling more cash to the island unions. As for rugby’s back seat administrators, they are really going to need to decide what they want.

Do they want reform of the PI unions and accept the disproportionate measures that will need to be taken such as competition bans? Many of which will fly in the face of some aspects of PI culture and be resisted by sovereign governments? If so they are going to need to leave histrionics of “neo-colonialism” and “exploitation” to sixth form debating societies while the adults get on with the work.

Alternatively, rugby accepts the PI unions for what they are, hands over the votes and the money and empowers the sort of system that appoints men like Kean. If we choose this route, the words “rugby values” can never be uttered again.

If you look at Kean’s well-documented indiscretions and think about the impact a man like that would have had on various families and people, consider how much of that influence you want in our “inclusive game”.

The fact that 25 per cent of the world’s professional players are descended from this tiny population suggests there are very few barriers to playing professional rugby. Giving more power to place the PI unions between players and their paycheques is not what is meant when we call rugby “a game built on respect”.

If you want to help PI players, as so many claim, there are many more areas that could help a lot more. In short, if the PI nations want reforms, it must come from within. No amount of white saviour complex is going to persuade the political powers that be to relinquish control of the PI unions.


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