Rugby

Players pawns in rugby’s game of chess

Rugby unions big and small have made their global calls, but once again many players will be the ones missing out on any upside, writes Ashley Stanley

If you thought Covid-19 crippling the world would bring about change, then rugby’s roundtable has well and truly vetoed that idea.

Sir Bill Beaumont’s re-election as World Rugby chairman showed that for them, it’s merely a pause in play. And things will be back to business as usual for the second half.

Any flicker of hope for a complete system rebuild was dismissed like beaten candidate Agustín Pichot’s campaign for a ‘global game’.

Squashed under the hierarchical red tape is the real problem. The true cost in these boardroom chess games is the price of the pawns - the players and their families. Especially those from developing rugby nations.

So Fiji and Samoa voted to keep things the same.

But that doesn’t mean the players did. That’s an important detail in the fine print.

Don’t get me wrong, rugby unions in the Pacific have their own backyards to tidy up. But like World Rugby, there are pecking orders in place. There are key players and set moves to consider and manoeuvre from within their own ranks.

And a rugby revolution from a players’ level has similar chances of success at the governing level.

You only have to look at the suspensions from the game of former Manu Samoa player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and former Tongan international and current Pacific Rugby Player chairman Tevita Hale Nai Tu'uhoko, to see what happens if you question the big boys.

Fiji’s vote was made clear from the get-go. And even after news broke of then Fiji Rugby Union chairman, Francis Kean, standing down - after allegations of homophobia and discrimination - the backing of Beaumont did not falter.

Fiji were never going to listen to New Zealand Rugby’s plea to back Pichot. Besides being left out in the cold (for quite some time) by their rugby-dominating neighbour, the rugby academies feeding French rugby clubs with Fijian players was another sure give-away.

Samoa’s decision, on the other hand, was harder to swallow - but not surprising. They opted for the devil they knew instead of listening to a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Samoa settled with continuing to clip World Rugby’s funding ticket. And at the same time exercising the first bit of control they had over New Zealand and SANZAAR, for ignoring their insistent requests to do more for rugby in the Pacific.

Beaumont promising Samoa to look at eligibility rules is a gimmick and a blight on the sport. It’s the bare minimum considering migration patterns and globalisation - something Pichot should’ve realised when selling his version of a global game.

The part I don’t understand is why NZR would publicly condemn the Pacific nations for backing Beaumont and feign innocence like they haven’t had a major hand in pushing the Pacific votes that way.

Samoa’s vote gives light to historical grievances, but it won’t help either party in the long run - and the game of rugby as a whole.

Through this round of tit-for-tat politics, the players are left in the cold, again. The governing body stays intact by giving out cash with no real commitment to development opportunities for emerging nations. And the bigger players keep on ticking by with no blockages in the Pacific rugby pipeline.

So what exactly can NZR do for the Pacific? There’s a lot, actually.

If NZR are genuinely interested in building a global game, they should concentrate on what they can control, not what they can’t. They could always take a leaf out of the Pacific Rugby Player’s handbook for guidance.

Advocate and action an increase in the number of non-New Zealand players allowed in a Super Rugby team, or don’t include Pacific players under the restrictions.

Back that decision by setting up formal initiatives to support those players coming from the Pacific. Because connection and family binds us together. And it will affect on-field performance.

Last but not least, commit to holding games in the Pacific. And not just because of media pressure but because you honestly want to help level the playing field. Better yet, share gate takings when games are held in New Zealand.

The sad thing is these are not new suggestions and people will still argue ‘but the players get paid a lot of money’.

But like the politicking at the top tables, there are a lot of parts to consider at the players’ level. First of all, not everyone is on big bucks.

For the Pacific nations, the players are reliant on migrating to bigger markets to earn a living for their families.

And yes, that means opportunities to explore the world, but what if that’s not considered a positive for players from the Pacific?

Most of the time, the motivating factor of moving thousands of kilometres away from home is the opportunity to financially support your family. Not tiki-touring around foreign places.

But at what cost?

Well, the players’ well-being, both physically and mentally. And for some, sadly their lives. Another important issue that I can’t do justice to in this column.

Pacific players face completely different worlds and values to what they are raised in. Fundamentally, their collective worldview - where your own needs are put aside for the betterment of the whole - clash with the individual mindset and cut-throat business of sport.

Yet, people believe players should be grateful. Who wouldn’t want to leave their small island to play rugby in a big city?

But for every person who does make it, how many don’t and are discarded? What’s the conversion rate?

It’s always a shared win for those players who do make it. A contract can change a family's future (immediate and extended). But that’s it. One family. This is an exception, not the rule.

Whereas rugby unions, professional clubs and World Rugby can make a huge difference on scale, if they want to, because of the existing power imbalance.

Until then the reigning playmakers will continue to control the game, and Pacific and emerging players will remain in the cheap seats. Waiting to see what scraps are dished out to squabble over.

With anything, admitting there is an issue is always the hardest part. Sport is no different. How can there be any real change, if decision-makers don’t think it’s needed and ignore the gaping issues banging down their door?

Some say sport is a microcosm of society. But what will it take to reflect a society that benefits more people instead of an inherited, privileged few?

If not a suffocating virus, then it will be something else. Because the world is changing. And those who don’t adapt will not be immune to being left behind. Including the great game of rugby.

Ashley Stanley is in the final stages of submitting a Master of Communication Studies. Her thesis focuses on Maori and Pacific rugby players’ experiences within the Auckland Rugby Academy.

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