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Pacifica Rugby documentary Oceans Apart asks, can the tide be turned

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Pacifica rugby has played and continues to play a big part in the makeup of the game. And a wonderful new documentary Oceans Apart has highlighted their valuable place in the game, while discussing whether Pacifica rugby can ever ‘turn the tide’.

Look across the world and players from the Pacific Islands are prominent and makeup around 30-40% of those playing in the professional game. Those, plus many more playing in the amateur/semi-professional game shows their ongoing love for the XVs and game of sevens rugby too.

Names like Charles Piutau, Manu Tuilagi, Ardie Savea, and many many more have strong ties to the Pacific Islands. They all provide the game with their natural talent, enthusiasm, pure aggression, and passion; all things that are so exciting to watch.

That’s what we all see but, behind the scenes is a different matter.

Pacifica Rugby documentary Oceans Apart asks, can the tide be turned

A powerful hard-hitting documentary film – just like how they play their rugby – has been made and is causing waves through rugby world. And even if not a rugby fan, you have to take notice of this film. It has not happened overnight and has been years in the making. This writer remembers speaking with producer Dan Leo (CEO PRPW) a few years back and discussing the documentary.

Having been released on November 10, Oceans Apart made its debut on Amazon Prime. It highlights some of the hardships that Pacific Island rugby players face and is well worth a watch though sadly, it is only available on Prime and has not been released internationally, yet (but that’s another story). 

Let’s first briefly take a look at Pacific Island (PI) culture and try to get an understanding of players beliefs, and how they think and play the game. We cannot relate to their inner selves, rugby observers have little idea what they are going through and have been through, but, what fans do know is that they need our support.

As the game grows and becomes more commercial and professional, then stakeholders must make sure the individuals are not forgotten, and the message from Oceans Apart is to never leave them behind.

The three major PI nations are Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji. They have an approximate combined population of just over 1.1 million people, which is one of the reasons why the domestic game commercially does not generate enough money and especially, in lucrative broadcasting rights. In context, the population of London is 8.9 million.

Their people are quite shy, and village life and families are very much part of a community spirit that is very important. If you provide a favour for someone then that needs to be returned in some way. It’s a small close community that looks to help each other in good times and bad. 

Family is at the heart of a player’s mindset too. He or she is encouraged and some go to great lengths to do the best for the next generation. Some may immigrate to First-world nations for schooling. 

The PI values are where everyone contributes to help others and enrich their lives. That translates to rugby. So much so that it is life-changing for a Pacific player to gain a professional contract; not just for the player, but family as well.

Rugby contract brings Financial rewards, Responsibilities, and Representation

If you are offered a contract abroad then that player will often send home a lot of his hard-earned money to support others. In some cases, that player is the main breadwinner of the whole family. Not only is that added pressure miles from home, but with it, you might yourself be trying to integrate into another way of life.

As an observer, you wonder if tables were turned, how would we feel? Many suffer from mental well-being problems, and also from the wealth that a signed contract brings. This can have a detrimental effect and so it’s important that they have a body like PRPW to go to, and a trusted network of teammates, and of course family. 

It’s one thing though to get a professional contract and play rugby in some of the best leagues in the world. Those rewards are professional, allowing him or her to be recognized and can lead to much more. To get to play for your country of heritage is one of the highlights of your career. Players of course chase the opportunity to play overseas with the appeal of earning good money but, it comes at a price.

Eligibility is an issue that has long been discussed and Pacific Island nations have often asked about allowing them to gain access to overseas players which would then make them much more competitive against Tier One sides – bringing sponsors to their PI unions and improved infrastructure. That is, unless they represent a nation they qualified for over time played in that countries competition. So for some, they earn a Test jumper for a country other than where they were born and their family roots are with.

Currently, if you have played for an International team you are locked in and can only represent that country. So a Samoan player being chosen to play for the All Blacks or France will of course earn financial rewards yet he may only gain one cap and then cannot play for his country of origin. In this case, forever giving up that eligibility to play for your country.

Note: a review of Regulation eight by World Rugby could change this and players could return to play for Pacific Islands.

Player drain is having a detrimental effect on the Islands and now you not only have Rugby, but rugby league and the NFL looking towards poaching players and of course, those contracts can be worth a lot more.

Fair distribution of rugby’s wealth a big obstacle

Money comes back to the fore again and while yes there have been cases of corruption within PI nations like Samoa, fair distribution of earnings from these nations is not helping their case. This is something that needs to be resolved. 

If we look at International games against Tier One nations, then there has to be a fairer share of money paid to the players. Yes there needs to be a trust that any money paid is going to the right channels to help those PI unions to develop, but if we look at pay structure from Internationals, there is a disparity.

Let’s take England at Twickenham. Members of the English squad would each get around £25,000 match fee, whereas a Fijian or Samoan player competing against them would get as little as £650 each. And some of this he would wish to send home. Twickenham and other international grounds can sell out their 80,000 stadiums, but why isn’t there a fairer share of the gate money?

It is ‘said’ that when they, in turn, visit Pacific Islands then unions like England or France will return the favour yet, when do likes of top tier nations play in Pacific Islands? And the disparity would continue even then; none of the PI unions have an 80,000 stadium. So there is no way for a fair exchange in earnings capacity. 

For the Pacific Island nations to continue this way is just not sustainable and World Rugby and the leading nations of the game need to look to implement change. Although currently many Rugby Unions financials – at present with a pandemic, and even before this – are doing it tough financially, but we must not forget the foundations and values that the game is built on. What is changing is that commercialism and hospitality is gradually eaten away at the apple, we need to plant more seeds and over time bear more fruit.

Not too late for PI rugby, the tide can be turned

Oceans Apart has opened many up to something that maybe we took for granted and didn’t fully understand. The culture, pay/disparity and eligibility issues continue yet we need to look at how the game can sustain a good balance and provide a more healthy pathway for the Pacific Islanders to continue to excite and entertain fans throughout the world of rugby.           

Pacifica rugby must not be left behind and Governing bodies need to listen to what Pacific Island representatives have to say. They must have an open mind to change for the good of the game. With news that Bret Gosper has decided to step down from his role as CEO of World Rugby, maybe this is the opportunity to now to sit around the table to listen and formulate the future. 

Bret had the decency to listen and sit down with Dan Leo, although perhaps he felt he could influence change much more than he in fact has. Even Bill BeaumontBill Beaumont has appeared to want change; if only he can implement that sooner rather than later. 

This is not going to happen overnight. The tide may be turning and Oceans Apart has helped to bring to light many of the frailties and feelings that have been hidden beneath the surface.

Oceans Apart was put together by Dan Leo, Axel Haudiquet, and Callum Drummond, and is a must-watch. With a limited budget and small production crew; in fact just Axel, Callum, and Dan. It’s influence is growing daily, and with it a better understanding of how stakeholders need to look at what changes can be made to fully incorporate Pacifica rugby as the game develops. 

If you feel you wish to support PRPWwish to support PRPW then please take a look at their website and if you watch the film then please leave a review, so that Oceans Apart can be shown internationally. 

 

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images

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