Myths and Facts of Professional Rugby
“The grass is not always greener on the other side.” This was a statement that hit home for me when I talked to a former school mate, Daniele Baleinadogo, a former Flying Fijian who has played rugby professionally for the past 14 years and is now based in France. I had asked him a simple question: “What is the world of pro-rugby like for Fijians.” Droves of young Fiji rugby players moving overseas with big dreams is usually a much-celebrated event in any community or family. If you ask any aspiring rugby player growing up in Fiji, what his goals are they are highly likely to state with conviction: “To get a rugby contract overseas.” Previously many aspiring rugger would have said: “To represent my country.” The shift in attitude during the past few years has been due to two things. One, that many Fijians have gained media attention world wide for their performance in clubs overseas, where top ranked players are reported to be earning as much as 10,000 to 50,000 EUROS per month. Second, that many talented rugby youths in Fiji will not be able to find high paying jobs, mostly as a result of their level of education (sometimes sacrificed to concentrate on rugby training) and the lack of jobs locally. These are the revelations of former Flying Fijian inside center Seremaia Bai who is back home after playing professionally for 12 years to set up a rugby academy. “Being a professional rugby player can be a glamorous affair – the media spot light, combined with the amount of money earned every month are the basic ingredients that will make young men who foremost love rugby leave their families and make the trip overseas,’’ Bai said. “But it can also be a nightmare if you do not know what the real world of rugby is about.’’ Last year, pro-rugby player Sireli Temo, 30, took his own life in France. He left behind a grieving wife in Suva and three children. Sireli’s death revealed the ugly reality faced by many of our professional rugby players from the Pacific. Temo was struggling financially. This is the reality for our ruggers overseas, that many struggle financially. In a recent media statement Dan Leo, the former Samoa international now working to improve Pacific Islands players’ welfare in Europe said: “We’ve got very high suicide rates in the islands. There’s a lot more pressure on our players than your average player in Australia or England.” Leo has gathered some statistics on how many Islanders are moving into the European scene in an attempt to improve their standard of living and enable them to send money back home. “There are 72 Pacific Islanders playing either in the Premiership or for last season’s relegated side, London Irish. There are more than 100 others at Championship level or below. If you also count France, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, you’re looking at 600-700 Pacific Islands players whose sole purpose for being here is professional rugby,” Leo said in the report.
LIFE AFTER RUGBY
In December 2016 Bai stated publicly his mission was to educate the next generation of rugby players in Fiji to understand the various stages of playing rugby. “Not only that, I hope to make the media understand what really happens, what is fact and what is myth.” “The first area I want to touch on is our level of education before taking up contracts overseas.” “Many of our players who have gone in the past or during my era encountered a lot of hardship because they did not have the education that would enable them to fully function in a professional rugby environment. “I say this because I dropped out of high school early and no-one told me that while out there I had to learn to budget my money for rent, food and also to understand the tax system in the country I play in. “On top of that, I had to determine how much I could send home to my family – it was rugby and business combined. It was a struggle amongst the main thing – which was rugby, week in and week out. Bai said the pressure on the Fijian playing overseas was immense due to the change in environment, diet, language and training regime. “We were not taught how to manage our diet and to be disciplined in all areas of life. But when your performance drops or you get injured you lose your income.’’ “In setting up an academy, I am trying to drive through to young rugby players that rugby will only make money for you as a player for 10-15 years at the most. “Some don’t even reach 10 years. But after that you have another 40 years to live, so how will you support yourself? “It is very important how you save and invest your money in the years you are playing. Many former professional players are now struggling to make a living back home here in Fiji because they do not have any other work qualifications.” Bai said it was sad to see former national reps who were once professional players struggling to make ends meet today. “At the top of your career, if you are playing in the T14 or Guinness Premiership or Super Rugby, you are guaranteed between $10k to $50k per month based on your rating.” “After that it is taxed according to the tax law of that country, but many Fijians did not understand this so were in debt very soon. “Then you have to pay for your rent, gas and food and then send some back home to people who depend on you. “We have to change perceptions – some pro-players have the whole village depending on them; that is wrong because when the player gets hurt he suffers, no one else.” “We have to prepare this generation to understand that pro-rugby will only provide for you for maybe 10 years, you will have to prepare for the next 30-40 years of your life after rugby.”
A NEW APPROACH
Bai’s new academy is set up in the former Lelean Memorial School Rugby Academy. He has brought in four of his own full time staff and has already formulated its curriculum. His academy comes with a difference because it is also academically based. Its vision is to not only developing good rugby players but to build better young men who will use rugby to improve themselves rather than just make money. “But will be privatized and not be part of the school.” “This is my vision for the future so am working with the higher education authority in Fiji in formalising our program, and also with my own rugby network overseas and locally to source funding.” Bai says he was lucky that he had the foresight to prepare for his life after rugby and had managed to put money aside for his family and invest in a house. “My vision is to prepare the next group of players not only for rugby but for life itself. “My philosophy is to use rugby to improve yourself, not to bank on it for all the plans you have in your life but to start you off – education should be the first priority.” “If you aim for a contract, please finish your education or take the option where education comes with the contract you have signed.” “Education is the key – not rugby, but your rugby will improve beyond measure if you invest in education first.” Bai wants to remove the glamour concept from the minds of young rugby players because…”rugby is a big business now –but what you have to understand is that you are there for people’s entertainment, nothing else; when you don’t perform you are out, there is no emotion involved in rugby dealings.” Bai continues to move around the country conducting coaching clinics for his academy and working in youth empowerment projects. “I want to inspire and also educate, that is how much I can give back to my country and the sport I love.”
Seremaia Bai introduced his Rugby Academy concept in December 2016.
Players like Kitione Taliga are in demand in the European rugby market.