Money, says Sonatane Takulua, is always the problem. Tonga’s softly spoken captain is fed up of modest wages seldom arriving on time, when they are paid at all.
He has seen enough precious hours and emotional energy in camp wasted chasing payments for his brothers. He is tired of training being overshadowed by concerns over money, kit, travel and logistics.
As Tonga prepare to welcome a spree of galactico All Blacks and Wallabies to their ranks, Takulua hopes blockbusting changes to World Rugby eligibility laws can jolt his team’s administrators into getting their house in order.
“Money has been the issue since I joined Tonga,” the 30-year-old, who won the first of his 45 caps in 2014, tells TheXV. “Pay, flights, reimbursements…
“Everyone should come in and focus on training and playing, not worrying about whether we’re getting paid, or when we’re getting paid. That probably scared some guys who play for the All Blacks and wanted to represent Tonga.
“There is always a problem with the pay, every tour. Sometimes it comes at the end of the week, sometimes it comes on the third week. Players get paid late. With what I’m pushing, hopefully that will change.”
Takulua returned to France last month, where he plays scrum-half for Toulon, at the end of the bruising autumn tour, a four-week odyssey away from family and loved ones. Tongan players were paid 1500 pa’anga, just shy of £500, per week.
Yet they did not come entirely as a shock. Tonga were bereft of head coach Toutai Kefu, still in Australia recovering from a terrifying break-in at his home in which he, his wife, son and daughter were injured by blade-wielding intruders, during their European venture.
They had assembled a group of experienced coaches and support staff. They did their best in desperate circumstances, but with little time together, and scant access to their top players, the fear is the ‘Ikale Tahi are going backwards.
“The first week in Scotland, it got to Wednesday, Thursday and there were still players coming in to play in that game,” Takulua says. “We can’t do anything – we just have to learn our moves, our calls, and make sure everyone knows their roles in two-and-a-half training sessions. Us Tongans, we take the challenge and try our best, but we knew it was going to be tough.
“This was my second tour leading Tonga. I kind of knew what I was walking in to because I’d followed (former captains) Nili Latu and Siale Piutau all my career, but I didn’t know what it was like walking in their shoes.
“It was really, really hard to keep everything smooth, especially without the head coach and many experienced players who understood what I was going through.”
In the months and years ahead, some of the game’s greatest talents will return to their Pacific roots. With last month’s historic World Rugby vote, Charles Piutau now qualifies for Tongan duty and has stressed his desire to wear the shirt. Malakai Fekitoa was already available and would have played in the autumn but for injury. George Moala, Vaea Fifita, Ngani Laumape and the controversial Wallaby full-back Israel Folau may all follow.
“With the rule change, we do have world-class players coming in,” says Takulua. “We are lucky that type of player wants to come back and represent Tonga. Their profile will give us a boost and encourage the younger generation coming through to join Tonga instead of a Tier One team.
“I’m very excited. Charles Piutau, I messaged with him and Siale (Piutau’s elder brother). Malakai is on board, he’s qualified. I just can’t wait until they come in.”
The law change is not an immediate fix, nor does it solve the complex problems long plaguing Tongan rugby. Allegations of corruption on the archipelago linger, borne out in Takulua’s continued frustration over wages. Peter Harding, appointed chief executive earlier this year, is tasked with improving administration on the islands themselves.
Meanwhile, pressure from clubs to forgo Test call-ups will not cease simply because more heavy hitters are eligible to play. Toulon have been good to Takulua, but many of his team-mates were not so fortunate.
“There are a lot of good players in Tonga but they need to be tested at a high level, they need an academy to produce those players,” Takulua says. “Peter, the CEO, is trying to build something like that. Dan Leo and Hale T-Pole from Pacific Rugby Players Welfare are working to make that happen.
“Money is a big thing. I’m not too worried about it; I have to spend out of my own pocket to be available for Tonga. I paid my own flights and quarantine to go to play New Zealand and Samoa in July. I am happy to do that, but I don’t want it to happen to anyone else in the team. I don’t want them to think, ‘I’m not coming on tour again because of this’.
“We need more time in camp together. We need the pay to be done before camp so everyone comes in and focuses on training and games.
“I have had a conversation with Peter about getting pay done properly. He came on tour (in the autumn) which was good. I sat down face-to-face with him. He agreed, but I want to see it happen.”