Samoa’s players have always been infamous for their bone-jarring hits and cataclysmic carries. But on October 27, the South Pacific side threatened to strike England and the Rugby Football Union (RFU), with the most momentous blow in rugby’s recent history.
In the letter several senior Samoan players wrote to the International Rugby Board (IRB), they did not threaten to shatter Owen Farrell’s icy nerve, or even kidnap Manu Tuilagi and drag him back to the motherland.
They claimed that they would boycott their game against England on November 22, if the IRB (now known as World Rugby) did not immediately address issues relating to the Samoan Rugby Union (SRU).
The Samoans stated that their governing union has: no financial transparency, misused funds, interfered with team selection, blacklisted players who stood against them, frozen tour allowances at NZ $1000 since 1990 and even left players to pay for their own airfares.
In the letter, which was obtained by The Rugby Paper, they also stated: “These issues are affecting our success on the field and we can no longer play under such poor leadership.
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“The IRB engaged in dialogue with the Samoa Rugby Union and the International Rugby Players' Association to facilitate urgent and collaborative resolution,” an IRB statement read in reply. The Samoan’s accepted the response and strike action was averted.
So the IRB swooped in and saved the day, in the nick of time, right? Wrong. The Samoan players have been clamouring for SRU reform for years. So why did the IRB wait until the South Pacific Islanders became so desperate that they resorted to a threat of a boycott?
Because if 15 Samoan men refuse to take the field on Saturday afternoon, the RFU would lose out on millions, and the IRB could not let English rugby’s governing union be subjected to such a gross injustice.
But back in 2011, when the Samoan captain at the time Mahonri Schwalger, wrote a report to Tuilaepa Sailele, the Samoan prime minister (and current SRU chairman), which stated that none of the 6 million Tala (Samoan currency) the Samoan people had donated to support their national side’s 2011 World-Cup campaign, had been invested into the team. No one from the IRB lifted a finger.
The IRB cover all expenses for teams competing at World Cups, yet Schwalger claimed that Samoan players were paid just NZ $1000 per week and denied basic equipment, including balls and kit.
The report also reveals the dishonesty and misconduct of SRU officials at the tournament and stated that the side even considered taking strike action, but decided to play for the fans' sake.
When Schwalger stood up against the SRU, other Samoan veterans reinforced his claims of mismanagement and corruption. To’o Vaega, who won 61 caps for Samoa between 1986 and 2001 told Savlinews: “It happened in our time and I’m not surprised it’s still going on because it’s the same people there.
"The boys club running Samoa at the moment must be disbanded. In 1991, they were playing with thousands of dollars. Now, they’re playing with millions. It must be stopped.”
No action was taken against those who were singled out in Schwalger’s report. Su’a Peter Schuster enjoyed another year as SRU chief executive before stepping down in 2012 and Lefau Harry Schuster was elevated to the position of president of the Federation Of Oceania Rugby Union (FORU).
But Schwalger was axed from the squad for his outcry, along with four teammates, who had supported him: Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, Seilala Mapusua, George Stowers and Alesana Tuilagi.
Three years on, a resolution to Samoa’s domestic dispute is finally on the horizon. But the South Sea Islanders should not stop there. They are still a long way off obtaining a fair deal.
Earlier this week, Samoan prop Census Johnston revealed that when Samoa unveiled their plan to boycott Saturday’s Test match, they were threatened with being stripped of their home Test against New Zealand and expulsion from next year’s World Cup.
While the prop did not confirm the source of this threat, he hinted at IRB involvement. The Islander’s should not resign themselves to such appalling bullying tactics. Such a harsh punishment would certainly backfire on world rugby’s governing body.
If the IRB did decide to start lashing the Samoan’s while they were peacefully protesting against being underpaid and mistreated, they would re brand themselves as merciless monsters, not World Rugby.
Samoa need to realise their political potential and harness it. They should be invigorated not intimidated by the aggression of the IRB. It is time they stood up against their oppressors. The Pacific Islands have been marginalised by Rugby Union’s political and economic landscape ever since the game turned professional.
Rugby union’s tier one teams (the 10 countries that participate in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship) have shamelessly pillaged Polynesian and Melanesian players for decades, and either let their domestic clubs refuse to release these players for second-tier internationals, or fielded them in their own national sides, thanks to the IRB’s three-year residency rule.
Most top tier nations only meet Pacific Island sides at the World Cup, or in their own back yard. And despite the fact that a staggering 20 per cent of all the players who competed in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, were drawn from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, none of these nations have been granted an individual vote on the IRB council. They are collectively represented by the FORU along with several other countries.
The IRB invested £16 million into Pacific Island Rugby Between 2009 and 2012, and by 2016, they will have pumped a further £19 million into the Islands. But divided over a seven-year period, the three islands will receive just £5 million per year, which is less than the RFU generates from a single sell-out match at Twickenham.
When Samoa take on England on Saturday, English rugby will reap the huge financial rewards while the Samoan’s will have to scrape their meagre NZ $1000 (£ 508) weekly wages together, to book flights back to Apia.
If they book now, they will be able to purchase a one-way ticket home for around three week’s wages. New Zealand, England, Australia and South Africa would certainly be surprised by this figure. Because they have never been to Samoa before, to play a Test match.
In the last eight years, only two of the tier one teams have played in the South Sea Islands: Scotland and Italy.
Yes, New Zealand are set to play a Test in Apai in July 2015, but only because their conscious finally caught up with them. New Zealand’s domination of world rugby would not have been possible without an abundance of Pacifica talent, yet the All Blacks refused to play a single Test in Tonga, Fiji or Samoa for decades.
However, when the USA (and the All Black sponsor AIG) invited them to Chicago this year and promised them $1 million, the world champions accepted without hesitation. Wales have commendably confirmed a tour of the Pacific Islands in 2017, but why are the British and Irish Lions not stopping over on their way to New Zealand? Their last touring squad contained more Polynesians than Scots.
So what should Samoa do? Withdraw their withdrawal and boycott Saturday’s Test match. They should then contact the Tongan and Fijian players, and collectively, threaten to boycott all matches against tier one teams, until they are guaranteed Test matches in their own respective nations, and individual votes on the IRB council.
This may seem extreme, but without drastic action, they will continue to make a colossal contribution to world rugby, while reaping laughable returns. Plus, such a courageous boycott would evoke an empathetic response from rugby fans all over the world and turn the spot light on the self-seeking unions of the tier one teams.
When English and French clubs felt that they were not getting a fair deal from European Club Rugby’s Heineken and Amlin Cup, they left. When the Welsh Regions wanted more funding from the Welsh Rugby Union, they threatened to boycott the following Pro 12 season and held out for a more lucrative agreement. If the South Pacific Islands want home games against rugby’s rich boys, they should snub the inequitable international schedule.
Samoa, Fiji and Tonga should no longer let the elite nations strip them of their most promising players, while they continue in a cycle of poverty. It is time for them to improve rugby on their own shores.
But to do so, they need infrastructure, training facilities and equipment, all of which must be bought. And if they are going to acquire enough capital to purchase these necessities; they need to host international Test matches, because these venues attract paying fans, TV deals and profitable sponsorship deals.
Many critics will claim that the Island’s unions could not be trusted with such an influx of income. The SRU’s alleged mismanagement has sparked another player revolt.
There are also doubts surrounding the Fijian Rugby Union’s credibility, after the IRB was forced to suspend their funding, for four months earlier this year, because of concerns over governance and financial control. But if the international rugby community keep on ignoring and avoiding these nations, their respective unions will continue to act without sufficient scrutiny.
For years, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga have ventured to Europe, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand to play in Test matches, which profited the home side. It is time they demand what they deserve and need, home fixtures. But if they want to disrupt the tier one team’s monopoly and improve their own position, they will have to muster up enough courage to defy it.