Following Rugby World's recent trip to the Pacific Islands, we celebrate the importance of the game in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – and highlight the running battles taking place off the pitch
Pacific Islands Rugby Special Report: Ground Rules
Governance has long been an issue in the Pacific and the political involvement – the leaders of Fiji and Samoa also head the rugby unions for example – adds a layer of complexity other teams avoid.
Tonga coach and former Wallaby No 8 Toutai Kefu believes his union do not have the right people in power to take the game forward. “One of our biggest issues is governance. We just seem to be involving people who are incompetent. I’m not talking about everyone but there are people in positions of power who don’t have the experience to govern.
“Everything I do is about increasing our chances of winning, but I think one of their main agendas is to give local players an opportunity to play for ‘Ikale Tahi, which in turn allows them to get a visa to go overseas. I believe you have to earn the ‘Ikale Tahi jersey. I don’t want to waste it as a development vehicle.
“We’re faring okay on the field but off it we need people to secure home Tests and better games, an administration to secure other forms of funding other than World Rugby investment. We’re ending up with people who’ve got there through nepotism and corruption.”
Constant changes in the top positions mean it’s hard to make significant advancements, particularly when people want to make their mark. Tonga team manager Inoke Afeaki says: “Everyone wants to come and build a castle, but rather than build on what they’ve got, they knock it down and start again.”
Kefu and Afeaki would like World Rugby to be more stringent in how the Tonga Rugby Union appoint people to high-level positions, providing a detailed remit of what attributes someone needs to fulfil a role, but the governing body must tread a fine line. They can’t be too dictatorial as they want these unions to make strides themselves, to provide stability off the field and sustain progress.
Vincent Fepuleai, chief executive of the Samoa Rugby Union (SRU), knows it needs to be a two-way relationship. The SRU are working on changes to their constitution – a process all three unions are going through – which will see their board include more independent figures. The aim is to meet criteria set out by World Rugby, who want to bring the islands’ administration structures in line with other unions, making them more democratic and transparent.
Should the SRU’s changes be passed at the September AGM and World Rugby agree they have ticked the relevant boxes, they can then be proposed for a seat on the Council. At present, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga’s interests are represented by Oceania Rugby.
“I’d like to see us being able to voice our issues at Council meetings,” says Fepuleai. “We’re not sitting on our bums waiting for handouts, we’re working very hard to meet every obligation set for us. We want to work with World Rugby and make changes happen.”
There’s a perception that money pumped into the Pacific Islands doesn’t always reach its intended destination, but World Rugby now have checks and measures in place to keep track of and protect investments. Plus, many of the islands’ high-performances programmes are funded directly by World Rugby.
The unions themselves are not flush with cash, though. Fiji now have a number of key sponsors, the likes of Fiji Airways and Vodafone, while Samoa recently agreed a 1m tala (£294,000) deal with Grey Investment Group, but Tonga had no shirt sponsor for this summer’s Pacific Nations Cup.
Representatives of all three countries we spoke to are pushing for gate-share agreements to increase their resources. At present the nation hosting a Test in an international window is able to retain all the profits from that game. This works well for the top-tier nations. France hosted the All Blacks last autumn and then travelled to New Zealand in June for a three-Test tour – both unions were able to generate significant income through ticket sales, broadcast rights, sponsorship deals and so on.
The system doesn’t work for Tier Two nations like the islands, however. First, they have far fewer home Internationals, particularly against Tier One opposition. England, for example, haven’t played in Fiji since 1991 and have never played a Test in Samoa or Tonga.
Second, when they do host Tests – as Fiji did with Scotland and Samoa with Wales last year – they generate far less revenue as stadiums are smaller and fans have less money to spend. The RFU may have given “gestures of goodwill” to Fiji and Samoa for games at Twickenham but a global gate-share agreement or match fee between Tier One and Two countries would be a significant step.
McKee says: “We go to the northern hemisphere in November and play Tier One teams in stadiums that are sold out. The Fiji team is attractive to any stadium in Europe. We’re not expecting 50% of the gate but there could be a fair fee put in place.” Fiji fly-half Ben Volavola concurs: “If we could see some of the profits we help raise in those games, we could invest it back into the teams.”
World Rugby are looking into whether they can do joint deals involving the three islands teams so they get a better return on sponsorship and TV contracts, while people are lobbying for some sort of gate-share to be introduced. But until more Tier Two nations have a voice on the World Rugby Council, you suspect the status quo will remain.