Rugby World Cup 2019

Roofer-cum-hooker a poster boy for amateurs

Rey Lee-lo scoring the fifth of Samoa's six tries in their 34-9 Pool A win over Russia in Kumagaya yesterday. He was one of two Samoan players sent to the sin bin for high tackles in the first half but his team recovered well from a 6-5 half-time def
Rey Lee-lo scoring the fifth of Samoa's six tries in their 34-9 Pool A win over Russia in Kumagaya yesterday. He was one of two Samoan players sent to the sin bin for high tackles in the first half but his team recovered well from a 6-5 half-time deficit to triumph easily. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

TOKYO • Siua Maile was working as a roofer in Christchurch when he got a call from Tonga's national rugby team last month, saying they needed a hooker.

Three weeks later, he was playing against New Zealand in what was the world champions' final warm-up game before heading to Japan.

But despite being thrown into the deep end during Tonga's 92-7 obliteration at the hands of the All Blacks on Sept 7, he did enough to win a place in the squad.

Maile is one of dozens of blue-and white-collar workers at the World Cup - harking back to the game's cherished amateur origins.

The lower-ranked teams are dotted with players who have to earn their crust off the field, with many of them making significant financial sacrifices to feature in Japan - a far cry from the lucrative salaries enjoyed by players from the sport's elite nations.

"I would say 15 to 20 players made themselves unavailable. We can't pay our players much," Tonga coach Toutai Kefu told The Daily Mail, revealing that they were paid "about US$600 (S$826) per week".

It is not just the poor Pacific Island nations that have to make do on a shoestring budget, though.

While Uruguay fly-half Felipe Berchesi is one of the lucky ones to have a professional contract with French second-tier club US Dax, he admitted that some of his amateur teammates struggle to make ends meet, with football practically a religion in his country.

"You have to be crazy to play rugby in Uruguay. You have to really want to play. They are mad," he told Agence France-Presse. "You have to pay to play here. They train in the evenings or morning, after or before work.

"Our federation is not very rich. We make do with the resources we have."

The Namibia team that put up a brave fight against Six Nations side Italy, even taking the lead before losing 47-22 on Sunday, also have only a handful of professional players.

Of their sacrifices and less than ideal playing conditions, defence coach Dale McIntosh said: "We've trained in the morning and at night, and their recovery sessions have been during their lunch break (from work) for some of them.

"They played on a pitch one day with electric cables running straight down the middle. The ref said, 'If it hits the cable, we'll put down a scrum.' I've never heard of that. No one has heard of that."

In yesterday's Pool A match, Samoa survived being reduced to 13 men for almost 10 minutes in the first half and struggled to overcome a limited and exhausted Russia team, to open their campaign with a bonus-point 34-9 victory at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2019, with the headline 'Roofer-cum-hooker a poster boy for amateurs'. Print Edition | Subscribe