The rugby pros from the Pacific Islands who united to help vulnerable players
Last month the former Samoa rugby international Daniel Leo sent out invitations to players from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji who are based in France. He then travelled to Perpignan, Lyon and Clermont for the French launch of the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, an organisation he helped set up to support players who have moved from the Pacific Islands to Europe for their sport. Initially unsure what the response would be, he met one hundred professionals and received apologies from a hundred more.
“When Pacific Islander rugby players get together there’s a lot of food eaten and a lot of laughter,” says Leo. “But there were tears shed this time, when we thought of those friends who have passed.” Fijian prop Isireli Temo, who had played for Tarbes in the French third division, killed himself last year at the age of 30. Temo’s death highlighted the isolation many Pacific Islanders face when living far from home and their support networks.
Leo says other pros have taken their lives in France but their stories have not been reported due to respect for families and a reluctance to speak to media. Having initially set up the welfare group in England, Leo and his fellow directors are now offering their support further afield. They do not want another Pacific Islander playing in France to feel isolated ever again.
The welfare association is run by players for players. They understand what it takes to move overseas and make a living by playing rugby. Leo made his name as an abrasive back rower in London Wasps, Bordeaux Bègles and USA Perpignan, which gives him a useful perspective on the challenges for players arriving to take up contracts from the Pacific Islands.
“We only visited a small part of France and the response we got was incredible,” he says. “We underestimated the amount of professional players we have in France, which is good, as there’s lots of work to be done. We arrived to let them know that there is support available and that we are there to help them. We are also in France to help the clubs understand how to get the best out of these players and make it collaborative.”
Leo, who is in the twilight of his career with Bishop’s Stortford RFC in National League One, helped to set up the organisation after seeing some of his friends struggling to settle in Europe. “We have heard horrendous stories from players of what happens when they arrive from the islands. Say you have a young fella from Fiji. He’s told he’s on €700 a month. At home that’s a great salary, but in France we know that’s not going very far. Then he’s told: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll supply you with a room and food.’ The room is a probably a mattress on the floor, almost certainly in a bad part of town. And, while he gets fed during the week, we often hear about players unable to get food at the weekend and going to training starving.”
The aim is to protect vulnerable players from people who will prey upon their inexperience. A lot of these young men have never been in a professional sporting environment, never mind one in a new country with a different language. “When it comes to contracts, a lot of the players won’t even know they’re getting shortchanged. That’s the sad bit. We have to be there for the player and help them at the contract stage, whether it’s through an existing senior player or ourselves. We can make sure their conditions are fair and ultimately that they are given a fair chance to excel.”
Players can be dealing with mental health difficulties, not something often discussed openly in their culture, where the traditional attitude is to never complain, never talk about feelings and always keep a smile on your face. Leo and his organisation are there to provide friendship and willing ear, not only for the player, but also for his family.
“There are a number of challenges we are aiming to combat for our players,” he says. “First of all, we need to work hard to combat this social isolation and make sure our players are talking with one another and sharing problems. Then we also need to think about the players’ families. If you have a young family that come out from Tonga or Fiji to France to play rugby, the player might be OK because he is involved with his game, but how will his wife and children cope? We try to build a social structure so they never feel isolated and are always supported.”
Players from the Pacific Islands can also face uncommon financial pressures. “People from the Islands are extremely community-orientated and are acutely aware of their responsibilities. There is an expectation that you share your success in some way. For some players, the reality is they are in France on a very low wage, but the community may think they are on an All Blacks’ wage. We help to advise them on how to deal with this pressure. We have to help our players make smart financial decisions”
Leo knows that pressure well, having felt it when he returned home to Samoa to visit his family. “I remember dad used to pick me up and, as we were driving, there were two ways to our family home: one that took 20 minutes and one that would take an hour. We always took the hour one. On the way he’d be pointing out various big houses and hotels, saying: ‘Look, there’s one that Ma’a Nonu built.’ Players always look after their communities but, equally, we want to make sure that they are looked after long after they hang up their boots and finish their careers.”
Pacific Islanders are tough but there is also a brotherhood among these players. “Our rugby is an interesting one,” says Leo. “It’s very physical, almost brutal, but once the game is over, we have that joy of respect and friendship. We are very social people and off the field we will always work hard to look after one another overseas.”
The association organises regular social events for the players and their families to share stories. Leo laughs when he describes the size of the food order but it is always worth it. “Food is a huge part of our community. We eat together and share our stories of what it is like living away from home. We listen to the challenges and find solutions. We focus not only on our players, but we also work hard to make sure that the families are looked after. Whether it’s finding a church, or even finding a good value supermarket, they know we are there to help.”
There are now more than 600 players with Pacific Island heritage playing in Europe and the association is advising players from as far away as Romania, Russia and Sri Lanka. Leo and his organisation are working hard to explain cultural differences to players and their clubs. “There are different things you have to get across to people. A big thing is eye contact. Sometimes a coach or a team-mate will be shouting and the player won’t make eye contact. This could be construed as rude, when in fact it’s the opposite: he is showing respect. Similarly, many Pacific Islanders have an issue saying no. So, when they’re asked a yes or no question there can be ambiguities. We’re working with the clubs and the players to address these things.”
There are also issues when it comes to how the players learn languages. “When you learn a new language, like French, there’s a real emphasis on learning your grammar and verbs. For many players brought up on the islands, they learn visually far quicker. So we are also there to share our experiences with the clubs, to help make sure the player is giving himself every opportunity of succeeding.”
Leo and his team know there is more work to be done. They have only scratched the surface of the professional rugby circuit in France and there are plans to visit players in rugby strongholds such as Toulouse, Biarritz and Bayonne. French clubs are contacting the association to ask if they can work together. It is early days but there appears to be an appetite for collaboration from the clubs.
The players signed up to Pacific Rugby Players Welfare would strike fear into any opposition. Led by Mike Umaga and Leo, the organisation’s players board boasts Manu Tuilagi, Nemani Nadolo, Mako Vunipola and Charles Piutau. Together they are creating a brotherhood that will hopefully create a level playing field in France and beyond for Pacific Island players for years to come.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
• This article is from Behind the Lines• Follow Jonathan Drennan on Twitter
Daniel Leo in action for Samoa against England at Twickenham. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA