Myths and Facts of Pro­fes­sional Rugby

mailife - - Contents - By JONE KALOUNIVITI Pho­tos by FEROZ KHALIL

“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.

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