The rugby pros from the Pa­cific Is­lands who united to help vul­ner­a­ble play­ers

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Jonathan Dren­nan

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

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