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'The financial model in place doesn't work and is actually borderline exploitative of us as a people'

By Liam Heagney
(Photos by Getty Images)

Dan Leo had the removal men around to his Esher house offering quotes the other day. Relocation to Queensland is on the cards at the end of the season and logistics are very different from how he first arrived in England in 2005.


“It was literally a couple of suitcases,” he told RugbyPass. “I’d signed an 18-month contract at Wasps and now 15 years later I’m looking at moving back with two kids, a wife and a heck of a lot more than just two suitcases.”

Australia is a sort of homecoming for the 37-year-old. Reared in New Zealand to parents of Samoan descent, he moved to Queensland at the age of 18 to earn his stripes on the local scene. A Super Rugby contract eluded him, though. His 2005 debut for Samoa made him ineligible to net a contract, red tape that prompted the European odyssey that will end when the removal men package away his decade and a half worth of belongings.

The changing scenery is strategic. It was 2016 when Pacific Rugby Players Welfare set-up, Leo its figurehead helping Samoan, Tongan and Fijian players overcome the challenge of professional rugby in rugby and living overseas.

Membership has risen to more than 600, covering pro and semi-pro leagues in England and France all the way down to National 3 and Federale 3 level. But with so many Pacific Islanders now attached to Super Rugby clubs, especially in Australia, the situation is ripe to branch out and develop the organisation’s southern hemisphere arm.

(Continue reading below…)

Pacific Rugby Players Welfare catches up with Samoan legend Trevor Leota


“We’re a global organisation now so we’re supporting worldwide,” he explained. “Part of my thought process about moving is setting up the Australasian branch of PRPW which is much needed, particularly after the revelations of the last few weeks around how some Australian-based players feel around the World Cup, (Samu) Kerevi and (Sekope) Kepu.

“Over 50 per cent of Australia’s Super players are now of Pacific Island heritage and there is a need for strong support programmes there which are basically non-existent at the moment. They have got the Australia players association, but the (Israel) Folau thing has shown a real deficiency in how welfare programmes are specialised for Pacific Islanders and it’s a growing community over there.

“Those numbers are only going to increase, so it’s really about getting in and supporting those guys. That’s not to say we align ourselves with Folau and those comments. As PRPW we don’t support hate in any shape or form, but there is a middle ground and we would like to balance that equation.


“The first part is having people on the ground that the guys trust and can be real advocates for Pacific Island issues. It’s important our levels of advocacy for these players match the amount of influence we have in the game.”

Getting this far in its four-year existence has been quite a battle against the odds. In contrast to the multi-room, multi-staffed organisations such as the RPA in England and the RPI in Ireland who access a chunk of funding from the RFU and the IRFU respectively, PRPW’s head office is a converted shed down the back of Leo’s garden.

Needs must, the Samoan himself even coming out of retirement to play National 1 with Bishop’s Stortford to help pay the bills. “I did two years retirement and came back out of retirement to play National 1 the last couple of years. Unfortunately, there isn’t much money in player welfare, but I’ve hung up the boots now.

“Our players are spread all over the world, so there’s no physical location although we have been based out of the UK. Also, we’re attacking it from a slightly different angle in that we’re fully financially independent of the unions and of World Rugby.

“That’s really important in terms of where we are as Pacific Islanders. We don’t have the same level of respect between players and our unions as say the Irish do where there is a collective bargaining agreement in place. Our unions don’t have funding to put into welfare programmes anyway, but if they did we wouldn’t be able to take it because we need to be in a position to have those tough conversations. The integrity of funding is key to that.

“A lot of our conversations in the pressure group nature of PRPW is being able to go to World Rugby and the Six Nations, which we have done recently, and say the model doesn’t work, the system in place doesn’t work and is actually borderline exploitative of us as a people.

“For us to say that effectively we need to make sure of the integrity of funding. Welfare funding in rugby is with the governing bodies, so we’re currently the only players association in the sport independently funded while the rest have some funding coming from governing bodies which for us would be a conflict of interest in putting our players’ interests first. It has been quite difficult but we have managed to keep overheads low. Our offices are a converted shed in my backyard and sponsors have come on board which have allowed us to operate largely pro bono.”

Winston & Strawn provide legal as they want to see injustices in the game rectified while Brookes & Sowerby dig-out on the communications side. “Those two things are huge operational costs for those high-flying organisations but it’s done for us for free which shows the goodwill in the rugby community for Pacific Islanders and for what we bring to the game.”

The ambition now is to ensure the Pacific Island nations get a better slice of the financial pie powering the professional game. Currently, the outlook is critical. For example, when Tonga visit a sold-out Twickenham next November, they won’t get a single penny of the game’s proceeds, a situation unlikely to change if CVC Capital Partners buy into the Six Nations.

It was last summer when Leo canvassed all six chief executives of the half-dozen unions making up the Six Nations, suggesting it would be in the best interests of the sport internationally if they adopted a ten per cent profit share model in favour of a tier two side hosted by a tier one team.

Replies were courteous but the trail has since gone cold, leaving PRPW reiterating the call for revenue redistribution at a time when Six Nations are rolling in it with sell-out crowds on Saturday at Twickenham and Murrayfield and a reputed £300million windfall on the table to allow CVC in.

“It’s a real worry,” he admitted. “If making money is the only yardstick, the only measurement these guys have got, then we might as well give up playing rugby as Pacific Islanders because they are only going to want the top teams to play against the other top teams.

“That’s going to create huge division between the tiers and the game will be in a very precarious state. The Six Nations are the guardians of the game. I’m not even mentioning World Rugby because all I see World Rugby is running a World Cup and that’s it. They have got no power in the game, no authority to put a stop to the CVC funding coming into the Six Nations.

Leo playing for Wasps
Dan Leo’s European adventure started off at Wasps (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“The Six Nations are very much in control of the sport and that’s why I wrote directly to the CEOs of the Six Nations talking about the profit share model. I copied World Rugby in but I very much see the Six Nations as the puppet masters of World Rugby. We would all like to think World Rugby is this all-powerful governing body but the reality is that isn’t the case.

“Seventy per cent of the money in the sport now is generated in France and England, in those markets, and if we’re going to make any inroads we really have to lobby those two unions. We need a new touring agreement to be in place before CVC comes in because it will get a hell of a lot harder once the money is already there and it becomes about recuperating that investment.

“The changes need to happen now before it’s too late. It comes down to the business model and whether that is actually reconcilable with the values of the sport. Even from a business point of view, it makes sense to grow the game internationally because your piece of the piece effectively becomes worth a lot more if the game becomes a global entity, which it isn’t at the moment realistically.

“You get a World Cup with only five, maybe six teams having a chance of winning. If we grow that to 20, this game becomes a lot more valuable for everybody. It makes sense to grow the game and it’s hard to see where the block actually is. It’s going to require a bit of an investment to do it, but if they only invest in the bigger markets, Japan, Brazil, Germany, China and so on, that’s not necessarily reflective of the shape of the game.

“We feel we contribute a lot so it needs to be reflected somehow, but would those global TV audiences be as interested if the Pacific Islands weren’t playing? Would the game be such a spectacle? That needs to be balanced out and we just don’t feel the balance is there. 

“I always think a Pacific Islands Super Rugby team would be supported by the islanders living all over New Zealand and Australia, creating a healthy TV audience, whereas the Chiefs, for instance, are only supported by those living in Hamilton.”

Leo, who has launched a new Patreon scheme to help boost funding, sensed this divide early in his career. He twice toured with the Pacific Islands, an amalgamated XV drawn from the Tongan, Samoan and Fijian squads, but was prevented from going on a third occasion as his club at the time said it was a “Mickey Mouse team”.

Then there was his stinging criticism over being left out of pocket when representing Samoa against England at Twickenham in 2014, a reaction that ended his 39-cap Samoan career and fuelled his earnest fight for fairer remuneration.

“At the time I was playing in France. I had to fly my wife over and pay for her hotel and we were getting £300 to play. It wasn’t considered a match fee, it was a weekly allowance and that was it. So you had players out of pocket in front of a packed house at Twickenham. That didn’t seem right to me and it still doesn’t seem right now even though I’m no longer a player.

“That’s key to why we set-up PRPW, so we can have this conversation. We were vocal at the time as players but with PRPW, those players don’t have to put themselves up there. I was dropped from Samoa after that because I was very vocal against the system, but also against our union who I didn’t believe negotiated enough.

“What you realise now six years on having looked into some of those conversations, there is actually no room for negotiations. You literally turn up under a consular agreement that pays your travel expenses and that’s it. If you don’t like it, they will find someone else to play and that’s the reality of the system at the moment – there is no scope to negotiate.

“If you’re the All Blacks you can negotiate up to maybe 30 or 40 per cent of the gate takings but for small countries like Tonga, England would probably make the same amount of money if they play the Baa-Baas. There’s very little difference and that to me is proof of a very broken system.

“Our unions aren’t in a position to turn down the games that they get against tier one nations even if they don’t make any money because quite often it’s the only opportunity they have to test themselves and develop against one of these nations.

“It highlights how important PRPW is in being a voice because our own unions – and this came from the prime minister of Samoa who is chairman of the rugby union – they just don’t have a voice because they risk losing the little that they already have, the crumbs they are feeding off at the bottom of the table if they upset the hierarchy.

“If teams travel to Twickenham or any of the bigger stadiums outside of a World Cup they don’t get anything for it. That is based on a reciprocal agreement that is rarely returned. With the cost of hosting a team like England, the islands would lose money anyway.

“It’s a vicious cycle and the only hope we have is changing the system itself through agreements. It’s going to require some of those tier one countries thinking outside the box, not just thinking about their own element of the game and their markets.

“It’s messed up, it really is, but I like to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel because I know rugby fans and players don’t believe this is right. If we can mobilise these true rugby supporters and make them aware of these issues there is always hope things can change.

“Ultimately the governing bodies have got to be reflective of grassroots players and fans and if not they are in a dangerous position themselves. They will lose the fanbase. My worry is that business had taken over in rugby but again it’s not too late. It’s about getting the business right and maintaining the rugby values as well which are key to the business model.

“You risk getting this wrong and it will be sad to see three of the mainstays of the last four or five World Cups not being there in the next four or five World Cups if things continue the way they are going.”

A change in current eligibility rules – for instance, allowing an ex-All Black such as Charles Piutau declare for Tonga – is suggested elsewhere, but Leo claims that isn’t the best solution. “It would be good in the short-term but in the long-term, the profit share is needed. It’s a bit of a band-aid. You would be still relying on players that have gone to other countries coming back whereas if we get the funding model in place, we wouldn’t be losing these players in the first place.

These are players committing to New Zealand, Australia and England who may say if it was a level playing field and they were going to get paid exactly the same for playing for Fiji, Tonga or Samoa, their decision would be different. That is the way we want people to see the game, not on a financial basis but on where their heart and loyalties lie.

“If we can get that right it becomes a bigger and better spectacle for everybody. But the way it is set up now all of the good players from the islands are just gravitating towards the bigger teams because they come from humble backgrounds where their first priority isn’t to a jersey, it’s to a family and the way you’re going to treat them best is to play for teams where you’re going to get paid more.

“We need the financial system to change. Changing eligibility rules would be helpful in the short term in terms of increasing competitiveness of our national teams now, but it’s not a long-term solution. It needs to be the system, the way money is distributed in the sport. That needs to be turned upside down. Too much wealth in the game is distributed among the top tier nations, but these bigger nations should get a bit less of the communal pot.”

WATCH: RugbyPass goes behind the scenes as Tonga prepare for the 2019 World Cup in Japan

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