England’s latest 45-man squad saw Nathan Hughes included alongside Ben Te’o, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Semesa Rokoduguni and Manu Tuilagi after the Wasps No.8 eschewed a chance to represent Fiji in favour of the Red Rose jersey.
New Zealand have long been accused of pilfering Pacific Island talent and England are following suit. But Leo refuses to condemn Hughes, instead insisting the powerful back rower has made a sound decision based on financial logic.
Former Samoa and Wasps lock Leo, right, told The Rugby Paper: “It’s a decision he alone could make and until it becomes more attractive for players to play for Pacific Island teams it will always happen.
“Nathan feels he was given more opportunities here than in New Zealand or Fiji so his affinity is to England and he’ll wear the jersey with pride.
“That’s the way it is with lots of Islanders and if that’s where the opportunity lies, you’ve got to take it. There is a big expectation on us to provide for our families and they’re going to be a lot more comfortable if you’re playing for England.
“That’s the reality of the way the game’s gone and there are six players of Island origin in the England squad now. If the numbers here keep growing, as I believe they will, in a decade the number in England’s elite squad will be nearer 15.”
Leo sees an influx of second and third generation Islanders boosting England stocks further.
He added: As more Pacific Island players play here and raise their children, a lot of second and third generation players coming through will want to play for England.
“We’ve seen it with Mako and Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi and others, while Brian Tuilagi is in the Saracens academy and Jacob Umaga at Wasps.
“Those numbers will only increase because the stats around Pacific Island kids making it in pro sport are high and we know all about their physical attributes.
“Harrow School, for example, are very keen to hand scholarships to Pacific Island kids knowing there’s a fair chance they’re going to be good rugby players.”
With around 70 players of Island origin at Premiership clubs, recently retired Leo has been appointed by the RPA to deliver its new Cultural Diversity Programme.
Leo explained: “I’m running workshops at all the clubs explaining about the Pacific Islands and how parts of our culture might clash with Western culture.
“It’s aimed at improving the atmosphere between Pacific Island players and the people who work with them, which can have a big influence on performance.
“It’s not widely understood, but in some cases Pacific Islanders can have whole villages – as many as 200 people – living off their contracts.
“That brings pressure, especially if they get injured or have their contract cancelled. My job is to highlight and explain that situation so there’s a better understanding of how our culture can affect guys around the club.”
Leo hopes his work will give Pacific Islanders greater leverage in how the game is run.
He added: “A key thing that crops up time and again is we feel a bit hard done by when it comes to disciplinary rulings and bans.
“We play the game hard but there’s a feeling our guys maybe get punished more heavily for transgressions, so five years down the track I’d like to think we’ll have some real influence for the 350-plus Pacific Islanders playing in Europe.”
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