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Dan Leo: Charitable mindset has held back Pacific rugby

Much of the kiwi media-fare leading up to the third test between New Zealand and the Lions focussed on Kieran Read and the fact it was to be his 100th test cap.

Only the seventh New Zealander to do so, Read joins a select group of 48 international players in the 100 club. Topped by Richie McCaw (148), Brian O’Driscoll  (141) and George Gregan (139), all legends in their own right, Read himself humbly played the occasion down while the rest of the New Zealand rugby public paid tribute. Such achievements are duly commended in the top nations.

It may or may not come as a surprise to you that no Pacific Island players make that elite list. In fact, scroll down the list of the world’s 150 most capped players and you’ll see none even come close.

The only Polynesian names that register are Mealamu, Nonu, Muliana et al. all players who donned the All Black jersey. Even World Rugby Hall-of-Famer Brian ‘the Chiropractor’ Lima, Samoa’s highest capped player who played in five Rugby World Cups – the only person to have done so – managed only 64 tests.

Hugh McMeniman a friend who made his international debut in the same match as I in 2005, albeit on the other team, laughs that it took him three years to accrue as many caps for the Wallabies as I did in ten for Samoa.

World Rugby has done a lot of good for the Pacific Islands of late. One thing they have failed to do though is increase the amount of Tests the Pacific teams play. Five or six Tests a year is just not good enough for teams who aspire to be ranked in the top ten. A lack of game time in a recognised competition remains a huge obstacle for Pacific sides when it comes to improving and retaining our talent.

As I mentioned last week, the biggest hindrance to Samoan rugby is still ourselves. I say this because I don’t think it is just the people within the Samoan Rugby Union who need to check themselves for answers as to why we are at the lowest point in our proud nation’s rugby history.

Culturally we are too tolerant of mediocrity and sub-par performances. A ‘look the other way’ culture exists which allows averageness and sadly, even mismanagement to thrive. For the Pacific region to truly realise our rugby potential, I can’t help but feel a cultural revolution needs to occur.

One area we need to improve upon is how we celebrate personal accomplishments. The way Kieran Read was recognised for his achievement interests me because in the Pacific we don’t celebrate milestones. The Pacific Islands don’t have the luxury of playing together often, so attaining 50 caps is a real feat. Other than Lima, only four Samoan players have reached the 50-Test mark. As with Lima though, that rare achievement seems to have gone under the radar with the Samoan people. Our culture is ultra- communal and successes on all levels are attributed to the people. For the most part, individual achievements are acknowledged quietly and in private.

You may have noticed how awkward many Pacific Island players appear when they are awarded a Man of the Match award. Acceptance speeches invariably deflect glory on to the rest of the team, and to God. Personal exaltation is an absolute no-no. To enjoy it is forsaken and you will be resented if you do.

This mind-set can be traced back thousands of years to when our people first populated the Pacific Ocean in one of the greatest feats achieved by mankind. Upon arrival to new islands, those early settlers relied on one another for everything. Community was key to survival and hence became paramount to everything they did. The attitudes that were formed then still exist today. The community is celebrated. Individuals are not.

In many ways it’s the most beautiful thing about the Pacific Island culture and a welcome alternative to today’s world of vanity and self-glorification.  It is also what keeps our island harmonious and relatively poverty free. Homelessness is rare in the Pacific. What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.

When it comes to rugby though, it’s a mind-set that I believe is holding us back. When the community is the first priority, a ‘leave no man behind’ mentality develops and you can only advance as quickly as the slowest in the group. The fastest have to restrain themselves.

Tall poppy syndrome, is prevalent in Samoa. In a rugby sense I’ve known players to refrain from wanting to personally excel, to deliberately hold back from setting higher standards. Natural leaders can be fearful of stepping into leadership roles for fear of being cut down. People would rather be the sheep than the shepherd. In 2012 I remember volunteering to call the Samoan lineouts and the number of friends I had in the team suddenly halved. Players whose ears I’d had that morning were suddenly resistant to my ideas. Responsibility comes at a price in Samoa.

Lots of people ask why the Samoans who play for New Zealand perform to much higher levels than those playing for Samoa. Having spoken to my Samoan friends in the All Blacks, this is the biggest difference. In the All Blacks, performance culture comes first. People are expected to leave their baggage at the door. New Zealand foster an environment where players are encouraged to keep up with the quickest, the best. Setting the benchmark is seen as an honour. The slowest soon fall to the way side and are replaced by someone more deserving. No one is made to feel bad for seeking to be the best they can be. Players want and are encouraged to be leaders.

That said there are players who have managed to break cultural norm and establish themselves as world-class leaders while playing for Manu Samoa: Peter Fatialofa, Pat Lam and Semo Sititi come to mind. These men swam against the wave of social begrudgery and came out the other side as national heroes. Most recently, Census Johnston and David Lemi reached the 50-cap milestone, only the fourth and fifth Samoans respectively to do so.

Tonga Captain Nili Latu recently became the first Ikale Tahi player to clock up 50 tests while Akapusi Qera, the talismanic Fijian skipper also recently surpassed the mark. As is the norm those achievements went largely unnoticed back at home and in the rugby world. I would like to honour these four players here. Individual achievements needs to become the norm if our next generation of Pacific Islanders are to have an impact on the professional rugby landscape.

We should be comfortable celebrating personal success and providing our young players with targets to surpass.

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