A duty of care is due any to any player but with more money than ever coming into the game, there are fears some are being exploited with tragic circumstances
In September Isireli Temo flew from France to Fiji for a holiday. The 30-year-old prop had recently joined Tarbes but he’d picked up an injury in pre-season training and the club were happy for him to return home for a couple of weeks. Temo, who had played for Fiji Warriors, the country’s A team, was well-known on the Fijian club scene and had also had a spell at the Heriot Rugby Club in New Zealand before joining Montélimar in Federale 2, the fourth tier of French rugby.
Signing for Tarbes was a step up for Temo. Located in the far south-west of France, close to the border with Spain, Tarbes has a rich pedigree, reaching the Top 14 final as recently as 1988. Such glory days are long gone. In May 2016 they were demoted from the ProD2 to Federale 1 because of financial mismanagement.
The deal Temo signed with Tarbes was worth 1250 euros a month [2,748 Fijian dollars], along with an apartment provided by the club and two return trips to Fiji a year. It’s said to be the going-rate for club in Federale 1.
According to Temo’s wife, Josifini Bese, they had a lovely time in September. Temo, her childhood sweetheart who she married in 2008, was “a very caring husband and a father”. Together with their two children, a boy aged eight and a six-year-old daughter, they had a lot of fun.
When Temo arrived back in France he was warmly greeted by his teammates. Although the majority of the Tarbes squad are French, there’s a tight-knit group of Polynesians, including Isoa Domolailai, the Fijian lock in his ninth season at the club, Semisi Taulava, the Tongan second row who had two seasons at Worcester, and ex-Newcastle centre Anitelea Tuilagi, brother of Manu.
But ‘Chicken’, as Temo was nicknamed, on his account of his hairdo, began to feel isolated, the highlight of each day the sound of his family’s voices. “We had to call him every day and if some day when we missed to call him, then he used to get angry on us,” his wife told the Fiji Times in a recent interview.
On the evening of Sunday November 6 Josifini Bese talked to her husband as usual. It was not an easy conversation. “I spoke to him on Sunday night around 9pm [Fijian time] and he was complaining that he was sick and having body pain, fever and he was losing a lot of weight,” she said. He perked up when the kids came on the line, but his wife knew things were not well. Josifini says that her husband complained that he had not been paid in the month since his return to France.
On Tuesday morning she phoned her husband but he didn’t reply. It was Monday evening in France, and the next morning Jean-Paul Gerbert, the Tarbes manager, accompanied by some policemen, broke into Temo’s apartment, concerned that he hadn’t been seen for a while. He had hanged himself.
“It’s hard to believe that my husband is no longer with us,” said Josifini. “He always worked hard and ensured the family came first…I have to now support the children and look for a job to educate them.”
Temo’s tragic story was featured in L’Equipe last week. In an interview with the paper a fellow Fijian playing in France alleged that when things started to go wrong for Temo, the agent who had arranged his move didn’t want to know. Explaining that a lot of Fijian players are initially contacted on Facebook, the anonymous player said: “When they’re promised paradise, they imagine themselves in one of the big clubs, but on arriving, it’s sometimes a nightmare.”
Making a move overseas is a challenge for any player. Many adapt, some don’t. Homesickness can strike any player, regardless of how big their star. Zac Guildford at Clermont and Dan Lydiate at Racing are two of a number of top-class players who never adapted to life in France; but they at least could return home, sign a lucrative new deal and forget about their difficulties in France.
Not Temo. He was 30, and what is known in sport as an honest journeyman. No doubt he signed for Tarbes in order to save a little nestegg to take back to his family in Fiji. They were so proud of him. All of his relatives were, according to his wife. He couldn’t walk out on his contract. He had to stick it out, for the sake of his kids.
It must have been a terrible wrench for Temo to board that plane back to France at the end of September. The dark thoughts that accompanied him to Tarbes grew blacker as winter approached, and the despair that must have gripped him in his final days doesn’t bear thinking about.
Pointing the finger of blame won’t do any good. If people did exploit Temo, then it will be on their conscience. The best way to honour his memory is ensure no more Polynesian players suffer a similar fate. In an article in last month’s Daily Telegraph a World Rugby spokesman was quoted as saying the sport’s governing body is “committed to tackling the unique challenges” faced by the Pacific Islands and its players.
That commitment should entail educating players about the many challenges of playing in Europe, particularly France, with the cultural barriers that can be harder to surmount that elsewhere. Above all, honesty is required: honesty from the players, from the agents and from the clubs. There are more important things in life than money. A man’s life, for example.