Q&A with Pacific Rugby Players Welfare founder Dan Leo

Dan LeoFormer Samoa, Wasps, London Irish, London Welsh and lock Dan Leo has founded Pacific Rugby Players Welfare and was recently appointed by the RPA to deliver its new Cultural Diversity Programme. He outlines his aims to NEALE HARVEY.
What is Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW)?
It’s something I proposed about 18 months ago and the wheels really started getting in motion in 2014 when I was with Samoa and became a voice piece for the Samoa players in our dispute with the Union over conditions and administration. A lot of us were left high and dry after that and weren’t selected for the World Cup, so going into player welfare and representation was based on that and I don’t ever want to see anyone else put in that position again.
You’re also working with the RPA on their Cultural Diversity Programme (CDP) within the Premiership. What is that about?
Ninety per cent of Pacific Island (PI) international players are based in Europe so we needed feet on the ground here. There is a PI Association but all its influence is in New Zealand which is no use to us. The RPA have been very supportive in helping me get things started and all our funding comes from them at the moment. In return, we’re providing the CDP for the PI guys here and it’s based on the format that was rolled out in Australia’s National Rugby League. I’m running workshops at all the clubs, not just for PI players but for all players and coaches if they want it and it’s just about explaining about the PI and how parts of our culture might clash with Western culture. It’s aimed at improving the atmosphere between PI players and the people who have to work with them, which can have a big influence on performance.
There’s obviously a perceived problem, so where do those clashes occur?
In all sorts of ways. Financially, PI players are expected to send a lot of their money home. Because the Pacific Islands don’t export anything, without people who have moved and are living and working overseas their economies would collapse. Therefore, there’s a big responsibility for us to send money home and look after our families, which is not widely understood here. A PI player in England who earns £100,000 a year might only spend £10,000 on themselves and the rest goes home. Sometimes money is pooled and the wages of some players goes straight into their parents’ bank account, with them being given an allowance to live off. The father will separate the money amongst the family, church and the village and I was talking to a Fijian player last week who is the sole provider for his entire village back home. He’s supporting 200-plus people on his rugby contract so you can see the pressure they’re under, especially if they were to get injured or have their contract cancelled for some reason. My job with the CDP is to highlight and explain that situation to the clubs so there’s a better understanding of how our culture affects guys in the way they act around their clubs and teammates.
How else might culture clashes manifest themselves?
There are differences in the way we communicate. PI boys usually come across as quite shy and won’t make eye contact, but that’s actually a sign of respect. We’re not taught in our culture to approach authority, ever question it or think critically of ourselves, whereas here asking questions is seen as a sign that you’re engaging with people. If you’re not asking questions the coaches wonder if you care, or if you’re not making eye contact they’ll wonder if you’re listening, but it’s simply a cultural thing and that’s where misunderstandings can occur. We’re not encouraged at home to express ourselves verbally so as a result we end up expressing ourselves physically, which is why we end up with the worst numbers of yellow and red cards. That’s a risk to teams on the field so it’s my job now to work with these guys and support them on all manner of social aspects. I can explain to the wider playing group what our strengths and weaknesses are, which, hopefully, will have a positive effect on performances.
We hear of social issues affecting PI communities Down Under, so as more PI players come here is that something we must be mindful of?
There are a lot of social issues in Island society. Problem areas like alcohol abuse and domestic violence are really high and what you find is it’s not just the guys who are born and raised on the Islands, the stats say incidents are just as bad in our communities in Australia and New Zealand. Our guys are better at hiding things so it’s something we must keep working on in terms of higher learning and work experience for guys here. An important factor for the RPA, as a people group, is to start engaging with PI players on matters such as life after rugby. Those things are just not on our radar because we have so much on our plates supporting our families in the here and now, but a lot of guys are starting to settle here and they need to start planning better.
Did you have any personal horror stories?
Issues crop up that you never imagine and not long after I’d come here I ended up getting two court summons’ while I was away on tour, one of them for not paying a TV license, which I’d never even heard of, and another for unpaid council tax. If that can happen to me as someone raised in New Zealand, imagine what it’s like coming from a tiny island with no formal laws into a place like London! It’s very daunting and that’s where we can give a lot of guidance.
I hear you’re being assisted by Samoa and Gloucester legend Junior Paramore?
Yes. Junior’s not employed by the RPA, he’s just working with me on PRPW and it was important for me to keep that separate from the RPA. Whenever our boys see something is part of a hierarchy they can switch off and go into their shells a bit, so it’s good to have Junior on board. I was New Zealand raised, as are 80 per cent of PI players here, and I’ll be able to connect very well with them, but for the other 20 per cent who were raised on the Islands it is important to deal with someone like Junior, who was raised in Samoa and can relate to them. He’s a little bit older and having that generational difference is useful because we respect our elders. Plus, he’s a legend in the game who’s been in England for over 20 years.
Apart from improving PI player welfare, what else do you hope to achieve?
We’d like to be a representative voice on how the game is being run. As Islanders, one of the key things that crops up time and time again is we probably 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 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.
Are you hoping to extend your programmes into Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France?
It’s just England at the moment because I don’t want to run before I can walk, but things could move quickly. France is more problematical and there are more cultural issues there so it’s very much on our radar, but initially we want to gain the confidence of the players here and if the other UK Unions like what we’re doing and want us to come in, we’ll be happy to look at it.
Would you hope to follow New Zealand’s model of integration?
When it comes to getting things right the obvious example is the All Blacks. They’ve really got the best out of their PI players over a long period of time – probably 30-40 years now – and that’s where our goals lie. As more PI players come and play here and raise their children here as well, you’ll start to see a lot of second and third generation PI players coming through wanting to play for England. We’ve already seen it with Mako and Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi and others, while Brian Tuilagi is in the senior Saracens academy and Jacob Umaga is on the radar at Wasps. The stats around PI kids making it in professional sport are really high and we know all about their physical attributes. Harrow School, for example, are very keen to hand scholarships to PI kids on the basis that there’s a fair chance they’re going to be good rugby players, so to be able to help those kids and their families while maintaining their heritage is important. It’s not about assimilating people, it’s about helping them realise their differences are their strengths and the obvious example is Billy Vunipola and how Eddie Jones has empowered him. Eddie told him he didn’t want him playing like an English No.8, he wanted him to perform as a Tongan No.8 and Billy’s performances have gone through the roof. I’d like to see all PI players being empowered in that way and it can only be good for England.
Fair enough, but you surely can’t be happy at seeing someone like Nathan Hughes eschewing Fiji in favour of England?
It’s a decision he alone could make and until it becomes more attractive for players to play for PI teams that will always happen. Nathan feels he was given more opportunities here than he was in New Zealand or Fiji so his affinity is to England now and if he does make the step up he’ll wear the jersey with pride. That’s the way it is with a lot of Islanders and if that’s where the opportunity lies, you’ve got to take it. As I said, 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 than if you were playing for Tonga, Fiji or Samoa. That’s the reality of the way the game’s gone.
Six members of England’s latest 45-man squad are of PI origin, do you expect that number to multiply in future?
Definitely. By my calculations there are now between 65-70 PI players at Premiership clubs and another 30-40 in the Championship. Each Premiership club now averages six PI players, which has doubled from when I first came over to Wasps in 2005. If the number keeps growing, as I expect it will, I’d like to think that in a decade the number in the England elite squad will be nearer 15.
What about ‘Brexit’, though, do you fear that might limit opportunities?
It’s come up in the first month of me working with the Island boys and they’re concerned, but the truth is we just don’t know yet. Nothing’s going to happen for two years but after that you’d hope something similar to Kolpak can be agreed so that contracts can be honoured and other guys will still be able to come over here. PRPW is here for the benefit of those players so if there’s anything I can do to influence policy at government level, it will be done.
What’s the situation like in Samoan rugby now after you came close to striking in 2014?
A lot’s improved and for the guys in the Samoa team I’m still in touch with there are have been a lot of changes, which is exactly the outcome we wanted to see. We need to see the fruition of that in terms of results but it’s been really positive. We went the hard way in making that stance in 2014 and it cost me a World Cup, but I’d rather see my national team in a better place.
How disappointed were you that Samoa performed so poorly at the World Cup?
It was very disappointing and that probably highlighted why we did what we did with the off-field stuff. We probably did it a couple of years too late, which is a regret, but it has had a real effect and hopefully the changes that have been made in terms of high performance facilities and coaching will impact on how we perform at the next World Cup in Japan.
Are we anywhere near seeing a PI team in Super Rugby?
That’s on the cards. There hasn’t been an expansion into the Pacific Islands yet but momentum is building and it’s getting harder and harder to keep them out. Samoa successfully hosting the All Blacks helped and Fiji hosted a Super Rugby match this year, both of which proved the enthusiasm is there, so the next thing is to work on the commercial viability. Some of the proposals I’ve seen talk about basing a team in the States or Hawaii, with a couple of games being played on the Islands, so there are some pretty exciting possibilities in the pipeline.
Finally, you’re only 33, so have you definitely called it a day playing-wise?
Definitely retired! I am doing some coaching at London Cornish, which I really enjoy, but I’ll not be looking at coaching professionally as PRPW is now the biggest thing in my life. If anyone is interested in sponsoring or partnering us we can be contacted on enquiries@pacificrpw.com or visit www.pacificrpw.com.

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