Gavin Cummiskey: Time for Irish players to support their Pacific Island peers

Rugby’s cosy cartel continues to deny Samoa, Tonga and Fiji their full due

 Daniel Leo, the former Samoan lock: “I’ve been contacted by four or five high-profile players, in the prime of their careers, Wallabies and current All Blacks, who have said ‘My heart wants to play for my Pacific Island nation – when is that going to happen?’” Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty

Daniel Leo, the former Samoan lock: “I’ve been contacted by four or five high-profile players, in the prime of their careers, Wallabies and current All Blacks, who have said ‘My heart wants to play for my Pacific Island nation – when is that going to happen?’” Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty

 

Rugby is a cosy cartel. Always has been and recent events suggest it always will be.

We are talking about the pandemic and about Bill Beaumont’s re-election but mostly we are seeing Polynesian players reacting to Black Lives Matter protests that began in Minneapolis, after the killing of George Floyd by police officers, before spilling across the United States of America and into the wider world from London to Auckland.

Some context. The chief executive officer of our homestead has established her office in the hallway. A recent Ikea delivery forced the transportation of all sports related documents from said hallway into the journalistic hive (spare room).

Hidden gems tumbled onto the hardwood. We found Con Houlihan’s first and only offering to The Irish Times – a hand written masterpiece from 2007 welcoming the French to Croke Park while reminding Gaels that Michael Cusack moulded Gaelic football out of rugby clay.

I collect programmes. Always have, always will, hoarding them in family attics and sheds across several Dublin safe houses. Having to lug tons of them prompted a sulk about the one that got away: Ireland versus the Pacific Islands, Lansdowne Road, November 26th 2006.

When the curtain fell on the creaky, old wind tunnel. Arriving an hour early for the last cup of tea under the west upper, our gatekeeper had bad news.

“All gone, kid. They snatched two or three at a go.”

“Who did?”

“They did,” he nodded towards a gaggle of doyens huddled in the fading light.

Defeated, we took our pew, still excited about Luke Fitzgerald’s teenage debut.

The visitors were Samoans, Tongans and Fijians almost exclusively based in England, cobbled together by a serious coach in the making named Pat Lam.

It quickly descended into a forgettable affair as Ireland prevailed 61-17 against undervalued tourists on the last leg of a pointless exercise.

“It’s ridiculous,” wrote Matt Williams. “They should be developing as individual nations. They are severely understrength as European clubs have found ways not to release their Polynesian contingent by offering higher value contracts to those who retire from international rugby.”

Fourteen years later Daniel Leo, the Wasps and Samoa lock who played that day, repeated these words verbatim. We listened last Wednesday as the CEO of the Pacific Islands Players Association highlighted the unexplained lack of movement by World Rugby to investigate Fiji’s governance scandal, with its homophobic undertones, and the worsening plight of Leo’s members without whom, to paraphrase NFL bossman Roger Goodell, there would be no rugby union.

Financial decision

“At least the Irish CEO was honest about it,” he said of Philip Browne’s recent comments that assistance for lower tier nations will “be down the agenda” as “survival” is all that matters to the rulers of this fledgling professional sport.

Leo prefers solutions over problems: “I’ve been contacted by four or five high-profile players, in the prime of their careers, Wallabies and current All Blacks, who have said ‘My heart wants to play for my Pacific Island nation – when is that going to happen?’”

The language Leo uses next is stark: “‘I’m captured now’ they say, ‘by New Zealand or Australia but I want to represent my own country.’ These guys made a financial decision when they were young and it was the right decision at that time. The regulations need to change. Players are just waiting for the opportunity that could create the revolution we think is needed in the Islands.”

Look no further than the Tonga Rugby League squad as an example of this very rule change breathing life into the other code.

“Bill Beaumont promised to review all this in his manifesto,” Leo added. “But a review is not enough.”

Change was advertised before the recent World Rugby elections. Agustín Pichot promised genuine status for the former colonies but the Beaumont faction prevailed after Fiji tipped the scale towards the old order.

With the unions focussing on the bottom line, it turns to modern players like Ardie Savea to agitate for lasting reform.

Guess which CEO said: “We are very supportive of our players speaking out. It is important for the players to know they have a voice, to know they have influence.”

A. Philip Browne or B. Daniel Leo?

Rugby’s elite are tightening their grip.

Stuart Barnes wrote as much on May 31st: “Can the other five members of the Six Nations, along with World Rugby, at least follow Browne’s example and honestly admit the game is a cosy little cartel and the leading players wouldn’t want it any other way?”

The current generation of Irish professionals are all about developing into leaders. They might feel inclined to influence the direction their industry is about to take.

Go further still. Athletes have a platform to encourage positive societal change, especially those from upper class backgrounds, which would cover the majority of Leinster and Ulster rosters.

Or they can continue to tow an unjust line by pretending rugby is no longer a colonial pursuit.

If they truly support the Black Lives Matters human rights movement – as so many of them claimed last Tuesday – they’ll know that a moment in history has arrived when silence makes them complicit.

Playing it safe by constantly mentioning “learnings” to mask your true opinion makes you a phony. Right here, right now the choice exists to condemn repeated acts of injustice, or ignore them.

All the wealthy rugby unions are in the red. Their planned recovery will probably destroy the slim chance of the Pacific Islands ever evolving into three freakishly talented squads that would radically enhance international competition.

One blacked out Instagram post doesn’t cut it, lads.

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