Rugby World Cup 2015: A special investigation into Pacific Islands poaching

LONDON, 15 SEPTEMBER 2015 (THE DAILY MAIL) -----New Zealand have the sensational Fiji-born winger Waisake Naholo in their squad, while France have their very own Fijian flyer with Noa Nakaitaci.

Tonga-born No 8 Taulupe Faletau is integral to Wales’s cause, while their Pool A rivals Australia will be spearheaded by powerful centre Tevita Kuridrani, who was born in Fiji’s capital city, Suva.

Manu Tuilagi, who hails from the small Samoan village of Fatausi-Fogapoa, was set to be an integral part of England's World Cup plans before his expulsion from the squad for disciplinary reasons. Tuilagi's five older brothers (Freddie, Henry, Alesana, Andy and Vavae) have all represented Samoa.

Even Pool D minnows Romania have Tongan centre Paula Kinikinilau.

The small nations of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga have produced an abundance of talent which has spread across the globe and the world of rugby has benefited from their influx — but the leading nations have not always reciprocated.

Allegations of player poaching, unscrupulous agents and issues over player release for major tournaments have blighted the game in recent years.

It’s an issue recently retired Samoa captain Dan Leo is very passionate about. Former London Irish and Wasps lock Leo represented his country at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups and has emerged as a strong voice for the Samoan cause and that of the wider Pacific Island community.

Every season, promising young Samoan, Fijian and Tongan players are snapped up by clubs across Europe and further afield. Many see it as player poaching; the clubs will argue it’s just good business.

The guys on the big contracts are the ones that are the publicised cases but there’s just as many who are on less than no money in places such as Romania,’ says Leo.

‘I’ve heard of guys playing rugby in Sri Lanka professionally now. Teams are catching on and they realise that the benefit Pacific Island guys in their sides will bring but there’s no protection for some of these young players.

‘These guys are being taken advantage of big time, by some of these smaller unions for next to no money. Some of the stories I’ve heard are bordering on slavery. That’s the ugly side of it. If World Rugby can’t look after the top guys then how can you expect to look after the small guys who have gone straight from Samoa to places like Hong Kong, China and Sri Lanka. It’s tough.’

There are positive stories, however, with Leo citing the Rugby Academy Samoa initiative set up by ex-Samoa stalwarts Mahonri Schwalger and George Stowers on the island.

The former Test forwards have established an academy independent of the Samoa Rugby Union and have set up partnerships with Super Rugby sides such as the Waikato Chiefs and Wellington Hurricanes as well as connections are far reaching as Yale University in the United States.

The newly-formed academy gives young Samoans the opportunity to showcase their talents in order to attain scholarships to overseas clubs and schools.

It's a wonderful opportunity for young players, but whether they return to represent Samoa is another story altogether.

'Again, it depends what way you want to look at this,' Leo explains. 'It’s great in terms of education opportunities and scholarships for these guys. They’re linking up with schools in New Zealand. I actually just put them in touch with a private school here in the UK who are looking at offering scholarships to Samoan students.

'The flipside of that is that in three years’ time, those kids will be qualified for England if they put their hands ups and come through the system here. Guaranteed, their family back in Samoa are going to be telling them to play for England and not for Samoa. That’s the way it is. Money rules and being a third world nation; family comes first and you do what’s going to be right for your family.

The islands’ nearest neighbours New Zealand have been accused of pillaging their best talent in the past. But Bevan Cadwallader, coach development manager at Auckland rugby and selector for the New Zealand U20 side, offers an explanation.

‘Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of third, fourth generation Polynesians living in Auckland. A lot of those kids are very proud of their Samoan, Tongan and Fijian history and background but a lot of them see themselves as Kiwis as well. So, there’s a lot that are born in New Zealand, come through the New Zealand system and play the game here and obviously someone like Ma’a Nonu is one of those guys who has strong Samoan heritage but is largely a Kiwi.

‘And you get other guys like (former All Blacks No 8) Rodney So'oialo who was born in Samoa but moved to New Zealand as a little kid because his parents came here to work, so they are long-term New Zealand people; they become citizens.

‘On the other side of the coin, there’s a lot of kids that from families in the islands that send their kids to New Zealand to attend secondary school so a lot of those kids get into New Zealand representative teams and they put themselves on the pathway. A guy like Malakai Fekitoa is one of those guys who came to school in New Zealand and things have continued to evolve for him.

‘I don’t see it as poaching. I think it’s just the nature of the game. Having said that, from a Pacific Island perspective, they want to be as strong as they can be as well. They could name an all-star team of guys that play in other countries that could technically play for them. But I think the eligibility enables that to happen — I don’t think that anyone is trying to rip the Pacific Islands off.

‘I just think a lot of them are born in New Zealand, a lot of them are playing here. There’s no professional rugby in Samoa so, to play at the highest level, they have to go offshore, whether that’s to Europe or the southern hemisphere. I think it’s all about taking that opportunity.’

Certainly, eyebrows were raised across the world of rugby when three players Luteru Laulala, Nathaniel Apa and Henry Stowers, who represented Samoa at the U20 World Cup in 2014, returned for this year's installment. This time, however, the trio were representing the Baby Blacks.

At face value, it would seem like the players were poached - but the issue is not all black and white, according to Cadwallader.

‘The reality is that those kids were all born in New Zealand,' he explains. 'They all go to school in New Zealand. Now, I know with Nathaniel, as an example, he was in the New Zealand schools team the year before.

'So, he has two years eligible for U20s. So, first year – there used to be a ruling in NZ that you could only play in the U20s for one season and they’ve since changed that – so potentially, he could have played two years for New Zealand but that first year he played for Samoa and then took the opportunity to play for New Zealand in the second year.

'I’d imagine the other two boys are on the same boat. They live here. They’ve gone to school here. They’ve come through the rugby ranks. Nathaniel was an Auckland boy who, on a small scale, went to Canterbury for an opportunity to play and, straight out of school, played ITM Cup down there. So, I think that’s just the nature of the game really. Kids will move around to take opportunities.'

Cadwallader cites Samoa flanker Jack Lam as an example of a player with multiple eligibility.

‘I coached Jack when I was coaching Tasman a few years ago,' he added. 'He was born in Zealand, he spent most of his life in Australia and he was an Austrian schoolboys representative but then came back to New Zealand to further his rugby career – and then played for Samoa. So he was technically eligible for three teams. He chose, for whatever reason, to represent Samoa. And I don’t think anyone holds that against anyone really. A lot of those kids understand that.

'Lots of Kiwi boys only had the opportunity to play for the All Blacks. If you’re not good enough, you miss out, whereas some of those boys who were born in New Zealand but have the ancestry to be able to play back in the islands or play in Europe, it creates some other pathways. I don’t see it that you should deny those kids the opportunity.'  

A worrying trend that has developed in recent seasons has been the emergence of strategic rugby academies set up in the islands by leading French clubs.

Clermont and Brive have led the way, building academies in Fiji in a bid to secure a steady stream of young talent.

France star Nakaitaci, who played in last month’s 25-20 victory over England in Paris, was recruited through this system.

Grenoble assistant coach Mike Prendergast has been observing the situation for several seasons.

‘There’s so much natural talent down there,’ says the former Munster scrum-half. ‘They come here at a young age, at 18, and by 22 or 23, they’re ready; they are speaking decent French and they are dual-qualified so they can either play with Fiji or they have the choice of playing with France like Nakaitaci has done.

‘From a Fijian point of view, it’s tough on the country, but from the individual’s point of view, it’s a huge opportunity to make a really good career.

‘The clubs are just being selfish and they’re thinking about themselves and I suppose… that’s what you have to be successful.'  

‘The French love a good big ball-carrying forward with good pace and that’s the profile of a lot of the Islanders and then obviously they like outside backs that are quick and are line breakers.

'You’ll often find with Fijians, Tongans and Samoans – they’ve got ridiculously good footwork. A lot of them have got that X-factor. Brive had a young winger last year, a Fijian, they brought him in and he exploded onto the scene here. He would have been under the radar. There’s lot of them like that over here as well like Nakaitaci.

'You can see why those countries are being targeting by the top league in the world at the moment, which is probably the Top 14.'

The issue is very much a double-edged sword. For a young Pacific Islander, the opportunity to forge a living playing rugby is impossible to resist but, their nation is being deprived of world-class talent.

It’s a lack of balance in the modern game; something which the former Samoa stalwart Leo would like to see addressed.

‘That’s the irony, the talent is always there,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to be at the top, no matter what, and that’s the sad thing.’....PACNEWS


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