How Is World Rugby exploiting the Pacific Islands?

When you think of Rugby, the main countries you think of are New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Argentina…

When you think of Rugby, the main countries you think of are New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and the member countries of the Six Nations, but in actuality, a quarter of worldwide professional rugby players hail from the Pacific Islands, more specifically Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga.

Together, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga have a population smaller than that of West Yorkshire, illustrating the huge impact such a small area has on the sport of Rugby. Why then, are these players not topping the world rankings and being extremely profitable enterprises?
Firstly, a majority of the best players from the Pacific Islands are swept away to more western countries, with higher wages being the biggest draw. It is in the interest of the Pacific Islanders to gain as much money as they can to support their family the best they can. The wages abroad are far superior for Pacific Islanders, and most of this money is sent back which is shown by the fact that 20% of remittances in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga comes from players playing abroad. A 2016 French documentary, entitled ‘Mercenary’, explored the effects of Pacific islanders being shipped to France and the abysmal treatment they received. Upon arrival to France, they were not treated as players but objects for economic gain, living in shoddy conditions and being treated as near slave labourers with no care for their mental wellbeing. Players are transported over so early on in their careers that by the time they are old enough to play for a country, they have passed eligibility requirements to play for their ‘new’ country where the pay is significantly higher. This is highlighted by the figure at the 2019 Japan Rugby World Cup, 42 players of Pacific Island Heritage played for teams that were not their country of origin or birth. The fact that so many Pacific Islanders play for the ‘main countries’ and these countries rank the highest in the world means that out of self-preservation these countries wish to maintain this influx of players.

Furthermore, the power of the Pacific Islands is kept to a minimum by World Rugby. The ‘main countries’ have three votes each on the World Rugby governing council, whereas Fiji and Samoa only have one apiece and Tonga does not have a vote at all. This makes it extraordinarily difficult for these countries to gain any benefit for themselves as they are outvoted continuously. This is shown by the cruel monetary exploitation of the rugby unions within the Pacific Islands, where the wage players receive when playing for their country does not even cover the cost of their travel to and from their homelands. Additionally, when the majority of these ‘tier 2’ nations play against the ‘main countries’, they are almost always forced to play away and travel across the world. Despite this, when the Pacific Islands rugby teams travel abroad to play, they receive 5% of any revenue from ticket sales. Revenue is one of the main sources of income for these large countries, for example, a home match at Twickenham earning the RFU around £3million from ticket revenue, excluding any concessions on top of that. Hosting multiple matches per annum provides the rugby unions, such as the RFU, with strong financial foundations, allowing them to invest and improve facilities and players. However, with the lack of home matches hosted by the Pacific Island countries, their unions do not have this vital source of income. Even when, in 2016, New Zealand played a match in Samoa, after all expenses, the game made a loss of NZ$1million. Losses such as this show how far behind the Pacific Islands lie with regards to hosting matches, despite their players being some of the best in the world.

There appear to be three obvious solutions to this ever-pressing issue; revenue-sharing, greater political power for the Pacific islands, and an eligibility law revamp. If the large, wealthy rugby nations shared a proportion of the revenues gained from matches with the nations they play, this would lead to a much more even distribution of the money accrued. This extra money would allow these countries to gain a more significant foothold on the global ladder, whether it be by increasing wages for players or by providing a better rugby infrastructure in their country.

Providing greater political power would involve increasing the number of votes the Pacific Islands cast, thereby providing them with the ability to lobby for the changes they wish to see in the world of Rugby. This change will be hard to come by because the ‘tier 1’ nations with the most power won’t be very willing to dilute the power of their votes by providing more to other nations.

Finally, changing the eligibility requirements could boost the standard of the Pacific Island rugby teams. If the eligibility years went up from 3-6, a lot more players would play for their home (Pacific Island) nation, leading to a higher level of player. An additional rule change could see older players, such as Charles Piutau, play for their country of origin (Tonga) despite being capped several times for New Zealand in the past.

These changes will be challenging to come by, given the clear power advantage the ‘tier 1’ nations hold in terms of voting systems. The most likely change to pass would be a shift in the splitting of revenues, with the Pacific Islands being able to gain a share of the money they have helped create.

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