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Leo: Pacific Islanders need a professional pathway

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Former Samoa lock Dan Leo has urged World Rugby to dig deep to stem the flow of talent away from the Pacific Islands.

Leo argues that extending the qualification period from three to five years will not dissuade players from cash-strapped Tier 2 countries switching allegiance to a major Test nation, nor eradicate the practice of ‘project players’.

Leo told The Rugby Paper: “On face value it looks like it might make a difference but a five-year residency rule is not going to solve the problem. It is just a way for World Rugby to look like they are doing something for the region without dipping their hands into their pockets.

“We are losing our cream of the crop seven or eight years before they play for the All Blacks – not five. They need to increase that period dramatically to have any real difference in the Pacific Islands.

“Instead of looking at reasons or regulations that prevent someone from playing for another nation, I wish they would look at ways to make them stay.

“I just feel they are hung up on the wrong thing, we need to look at the reasons why players are leaving. They are leaving because there is nothing there for them; they are just not feeling the reinvestment from World Rugby.  But it’s not just about throwing more money at the Samoan or Fiji unions,  that will not work either as we’ve also got some issues there that need to be addressed.

“It’s got to be a fully accountable approach and I’m available to discuss that with them.”

World Rugby will fund a Fijian side in Australia’s National Rugby Championship later this year in an effort to improve that country’s development pathway but Leo insists it does not go far enough.

“World Rugby need to put their money where their mouth is. If we are going to grow this game into a truly world game then they have got to start looking after the smaller countries and that requires a redistribution of the wealth in the game.

“Until that professional pathway is created, there will always be that financial reason for players to look elsewhere. I just don’t see the residency rule changes having a massive impact without changes in those other areas.”

Leo, now chief executive of not-for-profit support group Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, was disheartened by SANZAAR’s decision to venture into new markets in Japan and Argentina instead of opting for a Pacific Islands-based Super Rugby team.

“They are trying to push the frontiers of the game without looking after those countries that have played the game for a long time and who could do with a hand up themselves.

“I guess there are concerns around commercial viability but in terms of the infrastructure we can do it. The Chiefs just played a cracking game against the Crusaders in front of 30,000 at ANZ Stadium in Suva.

“They’ve got great facilities in Fiji and a population who love rugby and would get behind it – all the boxes are ticked.”

GRAHAM JENKINS

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