Richard Bath won­ders what im­pact the poach­ing of young Pa­cific Is­lan­ders is go­ing to have on world rugby.


NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

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.

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