Richard Bath wonders what impact the poaching of young Pacific Islanders is going to have on world rugby.
RICHARD BATH IS AN AWARD-WINNING WRITER BASED IN THE UK.
IF YOU HAPPENED to see the footage of Samoa’s recent defeat by Romania, you could be forgiven for wondering which team was from the Pacific Islands.
The Romania back division contained 28-year-old wing Tangimana Fonovai, plus a pair of thirty-something centres in Paula Kinikinilau and Sione Faka’osilea. Just for good measure 33-year-old Jack Umaga – a Kiwi of Samoan heritage – came off the bench.
Fonovai, Kinikinilau and Faka’osilea are all Tongans, born in Tonga, brought up in Tonga, but able to play for Romania under the three-year residency rule.
Kinikinilau and Fonovai play professional club rugby for Timsoara, a club which has seven born-and-bred Pacific Islanders playing for it. Faka’osilea’s side Baia Mare has four Pacific players.
They are part of a remarkable legion of Pacific Islanders making a living playing professional rugby in Europe.
Virtually every pro and semi-pro team at every level – even in fringe nations like Russia, Romania, Italy and Georgia – has a coterie of Polynesians.
When big-spending Parisian side Stade Francais recently travelled to deepest Siberia to play Krasny Yar in the European Challenge Cup, for instance, they found themselves facing Tongan fly-half Fangatapu Apikotoa and his countryman, prop Sione Fukofuka.
But then, like all French teams, Stade are packing plenty of Polynesian power of their own. Indeed they have three Samoans and a Fijian in their squad. In fact, the first team squad in every team in France’s Top 14 contains a posse of Pacific Islanders.
At Toulon both starting wings Josua Tuisova and Semi Radradra are Fijians. Clermont have a Tongan and three Fijians.
Racing have a Samoan, two Tongans and three Fijians. Toulouse have two Samoans and a Fijian. Bordeaux have five Fijians and two Samoans. Castres have a Tongan and a Samoan. La Rochelle have a Tongan and three Fijians. Lyon have two Tongans, two Samoans and two Fijians. Montpellier have two Fijians. Brive have a Tongan, two Samoans and six Fijians. Pau have a Samoan and two Fijians. Oyonnax have a Tongan and a Samoan. Agen have a Tongan and four Fijians.
And all of that is without even including pro players in France who were born in the Pacific Islands but who played their test rugby for other nations – like Joe Rokocoko, Alex Tulou and Casey Laulala – or those who were born in New Zealand or Australia but have a strong islands heritage, such as Virimi Vakatawa, So’otala Fa’aso’o and Anthony Tuitavake.
Together those two groups make up roughly another 80 players in the Top 14. Throw in the 59 Tongan, Fijian and Samoan test players listed as first teamers in France’s top flight and you can see how the numbers begin to build up.
It is also a pattern repeated in the French second tier. Grenoble have three Tongans, a Fijian and a Cook Islander. Perpignan have a Samoan, Fijian and Tongan. Biarritz have two Samoans and five Fijians. Bayonne have a Samoan, Fijian and two Tongans.
In fact, there are more Pacific Islanders playing in clubs below the Top 14 than in it.
But there is also another really important cohort of Pacific Islands rugby players which is unseen.
These players exist in French academies and are being brought over in ever increasing numbers because of a change in rules which means that Top 14 sides have to field a squad made up predominantly of French-qualified players.
A clause in the regulations defines ‘French’ players as those who come through their academies, so clubs are now scrambling to bring in young Pacific because it saves money and increases quality.
It is no surprise that money is at the root of so much of the migration of
Virtually every pro and semipro team at every level – even in fringe nations like Russia, Romania, Italy and Georgia – has a coterie of Polynesians.’
Polynesian rugby talent to the Northern Hemisphere, which is why so many end up in comfortably the richest league in the world, the Top 14 [not that France is the only destination – every club in England’s Premiership and the Pro14 has at least one Pacific Islander except Saracens, who still have three players of first generation Polynesian descent].
Where an academy player in France will be paid 4000-5000 Euros a month, Polynesians tend to be paid less. And while good French players will want to play for France, it is possible to lean on Pacific players not to play for their nations so that they are available through the autumn internationals and Six Nations.
It’s not allowed but there are countless stories from agents of Polynesian players being offered lucrative deals on the basis that they will agree not to make themselves available for their country.
There are, of course, some Pacific players who have no intention of making themselves available for their own nation because they are holding out for a chance to play for one of the leading – which in this case means the richest – nations. And why not, when playing for Samoa, Fiji or Tonga effectively costs players money in lost earnings and prospects?
There are countless well-known examples, but Nathan Hughes is a good case of the sort of pathway that is taking talented players away from their island homes.
Born in Fiji, he was scouted as a 16-year-old by Kelston Boys’ High School when they were on tour in Fiji in 2009, and went back to New Zealand on a rugby scholarship, proving to be such a good player that he played for Auckland Under 20s while still at school. Although selected for the Fiji Warriors side for the 2013 Pacific Nations Cup, he followed the money and signed for London club Wasps in 2013 and kept his international options open.
In 2016, after qualifying on a threeyear residency, he opted to play for England and then copped a load of flak for daring to admit that he was only playing for England for the money.
Not that anyone could possibly have thought otherwise; the issue was that he was indelicate enough to be open about it.
But then the Pacific attitude towards money is something that administrators the world over have never quite got to grips with, although there are signs that the penny is beginning to drop with the Kiwi blazerati.
They have realised that while there are cultural pressures keeping prominent Pakeha – legends like Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read – in New Zealand throughout their playing career, for young men of Pacific Island descent there are powerful cultural forces at work that make them vulnerable to being poached by high-paying European clubs.
Culturally, Pacific people do not consider money to be their own, but to be communal property. So any young Polynesian who is offered large sums to head abroad is not just thinking about what they want to do, but about what is best for their extended families.
There are lots of examples, such as Steven Luatua and Malakai Fekitoa, but none have spoken about the choices these players face more eloquently than new Bristol recruit Charles Piutau, the 25-year-old who would have surely been an All Blacks regular had he stayed in New Zealand.
For the youngest of 10 children from a poor family, coming to Europe, where he has become one of the world’s best paid-players on £1m a year, was an easy decision.
“There was an option to go back to New Zealand rather than sign for Bristol,” said Piutau, “but it was an easy option for me to stay in the north. I was born and brought up in New Zealand, I love the All Blacks jersey and I love what it stands for. But when it comes to a place when you can provide for your family and there’s a better opportunity, to me it was an easy decision.
“I’ll always choose my family over anything else. I’m so thankful for everything that happened in New Zealand, but I want to provide for my family.”
That theme recurs time and again. In Billy Vunipola’s recently released autobiography, he talks about his father, Fe’ao Vunipola, who captained Tonga at the 1995 and 1999 World Cups and subsequently played in Wales for Pontypool, Pontypridd and Caerphilly.
Vunipola senior was desperate to return to Tonga but was told by his father to stay in Wales so that he could send back money to raise his extended family out of poverty. He reluctantly accepted it as his duty to do so, which is why his sons Billy and Mako are now England players.
There are moves afoot to challenge the status quo. Former Samoa lock Dan Leo has set up the Pacific Rugby Players’ Welfare [PRPW] to further the aims of the 400-500 Pacific Islanders playing professional rugby in Europe, and the move to a five-year residency qualification will certainly make it harder to parachute these players into struggling national sides.
Yet as long as so many Polynesian players come from a background of poverty and a culture in which their extended family’s financial wellbeing is their responsibility, the flow of players from the world’s most fertile rugby nursery will continue unabated.
HONEST TRUTH Nathan Hughes surprised everyone by being so honest about why he is playing for England.
FAMILY MAN Charles Piutau has put his family before his test ambition.