Dan Leo, founder of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare and long-time campaigner for the constant failures of rugby governance within the islands to be addressed, voices immense frustration with World Rugby and tells NEALE HARVEY why his organisation will not be going away.
No. I’m frustrated with the communication process and how World Rugby (WR) operates. It’s really poor. We’re now eight weeks on from when an investigation was promised to the Press but nothing has been forthcoming.
Who is heading the investigation? We don’t know.
We’ve got sources in Fiji telling us that it’s going to be an internal investigation and WR are passing the buck over to the FRU. If that’s the case, to believe there could be a fair process when it’s the Prime Minister of the country, Frank Bainimarama, and his brother-in-law, Francis Kean, running rugby there is very naïve.
It’s not a very good look for WR and we had exactly the same thing with Samoa in 2011 when we had evidence of corruption within the union and money was going missing. Back then WR said, ‘let Samoa sort it out,’ but nothing changed because nobody is ever going to turn the gun on themselves. It’s very frustrating and it seems WR just don’t want to get their hands dirty. How can you grow the game, particularly in these tier two nations where corruption is a very real thing? The make-up of the people running the game in the Pacific Islands (PIs) is very different to, say, England or Ireland.
FIFA is strict on not allowing political interference in football, so how are politicians allowed to run rugby in places like Fiji and Samoa?
We need answers to all of this. Through all the research I’ve put in, it’s apparent there’s a massive shortfall in the policies and regulations at WR. You can be any kind of criminal but there’s nothing in WR policy to exclude you from reaching the highest levels of the game. Francis Kean convicted of manslaughter but there was nothing in WR’s regulations that would consider him unfit for top roles because of that. The only thing you can find there is an anti-homophobia clause, which is why we were able to get his candidature for the WR executive committee withdrawn, but forget the fact he killed a person, that doesn’t matter.
The regulations do not match the sport in terms of professionalism, particularly an Olympic sport. We were promised by Sir Bill Beaumont that governance would be looked into but whilst we’re hearing a lot about COVID-19, law changes and the global season, when’s governance going to be discussed?
What about your own country, Samoa – has anything changed there?
It’s no different. Our Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, is still the chairman of the board and since 2014 we’ve seen Samoa slide from seventh to 15th in the world, so what bigger red flag do you need to say things are wrong? If I was WR, I’d want to know where my millions were going. They have put a significant amount of money into the PIs – around £20m over four years we’ve been told – but where’s that gone?
We’ve made no impression at World Cups and I’d want better results. Samoa has similar political problems to Fiji and there’s no freedom of Press; all the power lies with the Prime Minister so there’s a lack of accountability.
Tonga is similar and there are real problems there as well. The CEO, Fe’ao Vunipola, has been holding an ‘interim’ position for four years and there have been no financial audits provided by the board. When they did have a board meeting he excluded all the board members he knew might question him, so as a result Inoke Afeaki, who sits on our Pacific Rugby Player Welfare (PRPW) board, and Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu weren’t even allowed into the building and had to sit outside the process. How can WR possibly think that’s right? We’ve got lots of evidence of similar things happening throughout the PIs but WR just don’t seem to want to know. We highlighted Francis Kean as long ago as 2014 but it was totally ignored then.
With hindsight, and as a former player, do you regret not carrying out your threat of strike action when Samoa played England at Twickenham in 2014?
Yes. It’s one of my biggest regrets. There was obviously huge pressure put on us to play the game and no player ever wants to go on strike, but WR promised us the Samoan regime would be properly investigated and action taken. Well, the same guy is in charge and the same problems exist in Samoan rugby now, so we should have refused to play.
Bearing in mind your experience, have World Rugby ever invited you or PRPW to join forces and help lead a revolution in governance of the Pacific Islands?
No. Apparently, they have a PIs working group but we’ve got no idea who’s on that and certainly none of the people involved with PRPW are on it. PRPW is one of the major global player associations now and we’re just about to appoint our first two board members in Major League Rugby in America, Andrew Durutalo and Shalom Suniula, who is also on the Olympic committee, and we’ve got reps in every single competition in the world now, but because we’re not funded by WR they just stonewall us. I’ve sent numerous emails to Brett Gosper, the CEO of WR, and copied in other people, but we get no replies or encouragement despite the contribution PI players make to the world game. There seems to be a real resistance to us but we’re not against WR, we just see ourselves as a credible friend that is trying to better the organisation. They probably just see us as a threat.
Speaking of threats, have you encountered any of your own from places like Fiji and Samoa after being so outspoken about their regimes?
I won’t be able to go to Fiji for a while, that’s for sure! I’d certainly be concerned given the military situation there. But it’s important that I continue to raise these things because nobody who lives in Fiji or who has family there can say what they really think for fear of reprisals.
The Fiji boys in our discussion groups are very supportive of what PRPW has said and it’s the same in Samoa and Tonga, but you do have a certain fear because everyone in the islands is related to someone.
In 2014, when we were really going after a politician who was a signee on misappropriation of funds, he was a very close relative of mine which made it very difficult. My dad’s first reaction was, ‘Does it have to be you, son?’ but that’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we are, because those bloodlines run so strong and the impact of exposing corruption is very real. But that’s what PRPW is about, that’s where we were born from and we’re getting some really high-profile guys on board like Ardie Savea and Ngani Laumape now who will really change the look.
We’ve got a really wide and influential PRPW board with almost 50 people included, from Henry Tuilagi to Nemani Nadolo, so we’re determined to create a platform that brings change. We all know the situation in the PIs is not right, both in the way we are treated and the way we treat ourselves, so we’re determined to be part of positive change. We’re no longer having to drag people out to support us, we’ve got real momentum going now.
Yes, there are threats and I was on the front page of the government-owned Fiji newspaper the other week with a big question mark against my head, but you’ve just got to roll with it. If you don’t get that push back it probably means you’re not pushing hard enough for answers anyway.
With the pandemic striking rugby so hard, do you fear contracts for Pacific Island players may dry up?
We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg at the moment in terms of contracts and players being released as the financial struggles of clubs become apparent. We’ll see the real impact over the next three or four months as clubs finalise their squads for 2020/21 and beyond, but the positive thing is there’s a lot of resilience amongst the PI community when it comes to isolation and hardship because a lot of us have been doing that for a long time in terms of being away from home and speaking to our relatives via iPads and Skype. But we’ve had a couple of guys in the Championship whose contracts have been downgraded from full-time to part-time with a 50% drop in wages so there’s a lot of uncertainty there, while there’s also concern with visas.
The UK’s visa applications service has been closed so there’s now a massive three or four-month backlog and players who’ve been contracted to come here like Nemani Nadolo are struggling to get things sorted. That could also have an impact on other players who might ordinarily be picked up in mid-season and there are still a lot of unknowns around Brexit, so it’s a period of real uncertainty for lots of guys.
Are you seeing evidence of Premiership and Top 14 jobs being squeezed?
Yes. Opportunities in England and France were already tight and COVID-19 is only making things worse.
When I came here in 2005 you didn’t need to have too much of a Super Rugby record, but now, for any PI or foreign player, you’ve almost got to be a superstar to get into the Premiership. You’re seeing a lot more South Africans in England now than there were five or six years ago, so how’s that going to affect PI players and their national teams? We don’t know yet but what it does mean is there aren’t many positions for young guys trying to forge a career. Fortunately, there are emerging markets like MLR and Global Rapid Rugby so, hopefully, they might provide opportunities.
Should we have a Pacific Islands team as part of a new trans-Tasman competition that is being mooted to replace Super Rugby?
Of course – it should have happened by now anyway. There’s been talk of a Fiji-based team but all the money seems to be going into European competitions now and unless the PIs can get close to matching those wages, there’s always going to be a drain of our best players to the north. But we need to keep pushing and if there is to be a new trans-Tasman competition, we should definitely be pushing hard to be part of that.
A truly global season appears to be getting closer, might that aid the Pacific Islands?
It would certainly help because one of the key things we’ve seen from playing World Cups at the same time as the Premiership and Top 14 is that PI players are the first people clubs put pressure on to stay behind because they’re the ones without a voice. If somebody told an English player he wouldn’t get a contract if he played at a World Cup there’d be a massive outcry, but if a PI player gets threatened illegally like that, no one says a word. That weakens PI teams at World Cups further so from that perspective a global season would be really good. If we could enhance that by relaxing the eligibility rules to allow players like Charles Piutau to play for their own countries again, so much the better. It’s a combination of things that will make the PIs strong but a lot of it still comes back to governance. You can pump in as much money as you like and restructure things, but if you have the wrong people in charge it’s a waste of time.
Do you see any movement from the top nations on revenue sharing from Tests to aid the Pacific Islands teams?
Nothing. And if tier one nations like New Zealand and Australia are making cases for revenue sharing, that’s almost hindering our push. People say that’s a positive but once you’ve got top sides looking to other top nations for handouts, it’s only going to reduce what tier two nations get.
I’d love to imagine the PIs reaching a point where we can access all our players, start generating income through sponsorship deals and TV and then even start developing the next tier of nations like the Cook Islands or Papua New Guinea, but that’s still a very long way off.
Do you feel the Pacific Islands are discriminated against?
A lot of our problems in the PIs are of our own making but we do feel there is racism in rugby because of the systematic procedures that are in place to keep the poor nations poor – and we want to see that change.
For example, we’ve seen comments from the Six Nations in the past where they want to keep themselves rich and won’t entertain promotion and relegation, and it was interesting to see the Ireland CEO, Philip Browne, coming out a couple of weeks ago to say that developing tier two nations was very low on their agenda, so nothing’s changed.
In my opinion, everyone’s got a responsibility to grow the game and leave it in a better place than when they picked it up, but these entrenched opinions don’t help. We see it all the time and if you look at the hierarchy and voting power in rugby, there are still nations who get three votes while others have one or none. The system is built to keep the rich nations rich and the poor nations poor – it has to change.
Finally, you said that if World Rugby fails to adequately address the Francis Kean/Fiji situation you would take it to the International Olympic Committee. Are you still prepared to do that?
Yes. Nobody wants to see rugby not being played at the Olympics and it WILL be played in Japan next year. But beyond that rugby must reapply to remain involved and if the governance issues within Pacific Islands rugby are not properly dealt with, then PRPW will have no choice other than to take the matter to the IOC and let them decide if these corrupt administrators are people they want involved in their Olympics? We will not be silenced, this has gone for too long.
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