Call for better deal to tackle sacrifices of Island players

Nathan Hughes could have played for Samoa in the World Cup but is serving a three-year residency to be eligible to compete for England.
Nathan Hughes could have played for Samoa in the World Cup but is serving a three-year residency to be eligible to compete for England.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

WELLINGTON • When England face Fiji in rugby's World Cup opener on Friday, Wasps backrower Nathan Hughes will be cheering for his native Fiji while counting down to next year when he becomes eligible to play for England.

He is symbolic of crowd-pleasing players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga whose skills attract lucrative contracts from around the world which the cash-strapped island nations cannot hope to match.

Hughes, also eligible to play for his mother's homeland Samoa, may be passionate about Pacific rugby but the powerful 23-year-old turned down the opportunity to feature for Fiji at the World Cup.

Instead, when he completes his three-year residency next year, he could earn well in excess of £100,000 (S$218,000) a year playing for England, in addition to his lucrative club contract.

In contrast, the Pacific Islands offer little more than expenses.

As ever, their treasure trove of talent is plundered by wealthy clubs and they get little in return.

They are not wanted in the Super Rugby and Rugby Championship competitions. They are largely overlooked in the June Test window while European clubs are reluctant to release players for the November Test series.

Yet, despite a limited diet of Tier 1 Tests, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa all rank in the top 12.

And International Rugby Players Association executive director, Rob Nichol, says it is time they receive a better deal.

This year's World Cup is projected to make £150 million.

Nichol, a strong critic of the way funds filter down to players, wants some of that set aside so players are not out of pocket when they take a hit on their club contract to play for their country.

"There needs to be a concept to take some of the World Cup proceeds and put them in a special fund to pay (island) players for playing for their country," he said.

"So the players can rely on getting it. They will know it's going to get paid and they can factor that into their contracts."

When the players earn big money overseas, they come under pressure from their paymasters to put club ahead of country or switch national allegiance.

In 2013, there were 272 players eligible for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa who were playing offshore.

But only 198 were available as 74 had aligned themselves elsewhere.

Former Samoa and London Irish lock Dan Leo estimates overseas-based islanders lose 40 per cent of their salaries if they insist on being available for their countries.

World Rugby is tackling part of the problem by reviewing the three-year residency rule.

Nichol opposes any extension because of a possible social cost to the islands where families rely on repatriated funds.

"As a result of extending (residency) to five years, it may become less attractive, and down the track you will have fewer (island) players playing rugby," he argues.

However, Fiji coach John McKee, keen to protect his emerging talent from offshore raiders targeting rising 18-year-olds, wants the residency rule extended.

"There's a massive threat to the Pacific Islands with players moving offshore," he said, with Hughes one player he would have welcomed having available though he is aware of the financial pressure involved.

"Our (overseas-based) players mostly don't get paid by their clubs when they are away on national duties and for those players, there is a financial sacrifice to come and play for their national team."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


198

In 2013, there were 272 players eligible for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa who were playing offshore but only 198 were available as 74 had aligned themselves elsewhere.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Call for better deal to tackle sacrifices of Island players'. Print Edition | Subscribe