Samoa grasping for crumbs

Dan Leo set up welfare organisation. Picture: Craig Watson
Dan Leo set up welfare organisation. Picture: Craig Watson
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The Samoan squad travel up to Scotland today after training for the past week in Surrey, where they had to beg some equipment from Harlequins. It is an old story; the Samoan Rugby Union is cash-strapped, some say on the brink of bankruptcy, but the RFU is reluctant to divvy up a share of the estimated £10 million profit from their Twickenham Test, while Scottish Rugby declined to disclose whether it was making any payment over and above hosting the islanders – which is all that World Rugby requires.

Former Fijian sevens coach Ben Ryan had a dig at the RFU last week and one-time Samoan lock Dan Leo, who only quit playing two seasons ago, is another eloquent and passionate advocate of change.

He has set up a non-profit organisation, Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, aimed at helping some of the estimated 600 islanders plying their trade in Europe.

He played against England in 2014, earning £400 for his trouble, while this year’s players will take home £650, loose change compared to the £5,000 that the Scots earn and the eye-popping £22,000 (the figure could rise to £30,000) that the English players could pocket.

“Fiji came to Twickenham last year and the RFU made a goodwill gesture of £150,000 so the precedent has been set,” says Leo from his London base, “Which is why the SRU [Samoan Rugby Union] has reached out and asked for the same treatment.

“What we have said is that £150,000 in comparison with what is made on the game is nothing and it doesn’t go very far when you are running an international programme.

“The lack of a strong financial distribution model in world rugby is to the detriment of player welfare. Some of the Samoan players are amateurs and they will be up against guys like Maro Itoje, who has been a full-time professional since he left school.”

Leo tells the story of one Samoan tourist, Melani Mataveo, who still plays on the islands and trains four days a week. He takes home £12.50 per week. Leo poses the question: “Is it actually safe to put these guys into an international arena where they are playing [against top Test teams]? You have to support them with the provision of welfare and support them to train to a high enough standard to perform safely and to perform to the best of their ability.”

While Scotland earned a heap of goodwill by touring Samoa in 2012, they didn’t create any financial windfall for the SRU. The main stadium in Apia only holds 10,000 and, with the average weekly wage around £70, ticket prices have to be set so low that the SRU loses money when teams tour.

The papers reported that hosting the All Blacks in 2015 cost the SRU a whopping £400,000. As Leo points out, England, who have never travelled to Samoa, could play the islanders ten times in one year but it would only bankrupt the nation never mind the union.

The islanders have not always helped their own cause, with a history of financial mismanagement that sparked a players’ revolt in 2014. Since then World Rugby has parachuted in a team manager in the shape of New Zealander Brian Hopley and matters have improved.

Leo insists that Samoa are not looking for parity or anything like it, just a few crumbs from the Test match top table.

He suggests World Rugby adopts a minimum fee for international matches, which would help players but not the unions.

“For me they have to make a minimum international standardised appearance fee,” says Leo ,who suggests a figure of £3,000, and only when tier-two countries play top-flight nations.

“World Rugby standardises that and if the RFU wants to top that up it is welcome to. At the moment there is no minimum wage.

“Rugby has been professional for 20 years and the current model maybe worked a long time ago but it doesn’t work in a professional age and it doesn’t work for Pacific Islanders.”

Samoa appear to have lost the services of two of their highest profile players. Bath scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i has retired from the tour altogether and Leicester’s huge prop Logovi’i Mulipola has a neck injury which makes him a doubtful strarter against Scotland.