“We are talking about the survival of Pacific Island rugby. If we are blocked out of the top competition for the next 12 years, that effectively kills off Pacific Island rugby. Nobody will want to play for Samoa, Tonga or Fiji if you are playing against lower tier competition.”
They are the words of former Samoa lock Daniel Leo, who now serves as chief executive of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW), which works to support rugby union players from the region.
Speaking to CNN following reports of a new 12-team competition beginning in 2020 that could potentially overlook the Pacific Island nations, he talked of his “anger, sadness and disappointment” at the leaked proposal.
According to the report in the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, France, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, USA and Japan have all agreed to the World League concept.
Teams would face each other once a year, with semifinals and a final held in the northern hemisphere in November or December.
The competition would reportedly be ring-fenced, with neither promotion nor relegation part of the plan, meaning emerging nations like Georgia, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa would all be excluded, despite Fiji being ranked ninth in the world – higher than Japan, the USA and Italy.
However, World Rugby sources have told BBC Sport that plans have not been finalized, and they would not exclude Pacific Islands nations, and that promotion and relegation was likely.
In a statement released on its website earlier this week, the sport’s governing body said a structured annual competition would “make fans and new audiences more likely to watch, attend and engage with international rugby, exposing the sport to new fans worldwide.”
It added that a structured annual international competition would “deliver significantly greater long-term global media revenue for reinvestment in the global game” and that the project had, at its heart, “long-term growth and stability not short-term wins.”
For Leo, though, should the reported plans go ahead, they would have severe repercussions for the sport in the region.
“We provide over 20% of all professional rugby players in the world. We help prop up everybody’s competitions,” he said.
“We don’t have our own pathway at the moment. We don’t have the audience, but we bring a huge amount of value to the party. There is no feast without the fire.
“Everyone wants to play against the All Blacks, England, and the top teams,” he said. “If that is ring-fenced, it becomes a real problem. I don’t think you’d find that it would minimize the number of Pacific Islanders playing in that competition.
“I just think you’d see Pacific Islanders playing for everybody else. Really, there is a lot at stake here.”
A statement released by Leo’s PRPW group, which possesses a 600-strong membership, the majority of which comprises of Europe-based professional players, declared that a boycott of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan could be discussed as a “legitimate player protest” of World Rugby’s alleged plans to exclude the Pacific Island nations from the new lucrative competition.
Leo added: “Certainly, the board members of the Pacific Island Welfare feel strongly and feel that they need to make a stand. I suspect that players, given the chance, would follow suit.
“This is a sport that I grew up playing in the 1980s for the right reasons. It was about those values that we hold dear – respect for the opposition and playing with your best friends. It was never to do with money, but with what we have seen in the last 48 hours, we have seen how far the game has come at the top level.
“Every decision now is made about money – it’s all about the commercialization of the game. That’s the reality of where we are as a sport. However, I’d like to think that we can do that within the values of the game and still protect those values.
“We are not a big enough or old enough a sport to be ring-fencing our competitions. We should still be growing the game. Looking after the smaller nations that play the game is an absolute part of that. It raises bigger questions about the direction and leadership of our governing body.”
For Leo, the issue goes well beyond the leaked reports of recent days, centering on the wider culture of the sport’s governing body.
In 2014, he was part of the Samoan team that considered boycotting a game against England at Twickenham in protest against the running of the sport in Samoa.
In 2017, Samoa captain Chris Vui stated that his team would “play for the jersey,” with Samoan rugby’s governing body declaring itself bankrupt, leaving the players unsure whether they would be paid for their tour. England internationals, meanwhile, were able to make around £22,000 for that match, given training fees and image rights deals.
“There are a lot of areas that need to be addressed – not just for us as Pacific Islanders, but for any emerging nation,” Leo said. “There’s a huge disparity in terms of the way that funds are being distributed.
“It is symptomatic of poor leadership and the gap that has been allowed to rise between the haves and have-nots. It is only getting worse. All of the money is in the northern hemisphere now. I suppose it also highlights the deficiencies within the World Rugby Council. There is too much power with the founding nations and tier one nations.”
Indeed, on the council, which meets twice a year and controls the organization’s affairs, Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales all receive three votes each; the unions of Fiji and Samoa receive just one each.
Leo added: “I believe we need a fairer approach, where if you’re good enough to be there, you’re good enough to vote on these things. Then you wouldn’t get these things where the smaller teams are being left out of the big competitions.
“We are talking about growing the game. World Rugby bandies that around a lot. But they have got no control of these competitions and because of that, they have been allowed to ring-fence themselves.”
“You only have to look at the rise of Georgia when you talk about ring-fencing,” he continues, highlighting the issue facing the Six Nations, whose chief executive, Ben Morel, told BBC Sport before the competition started that “relegation is absolutely not on the agenda.”
This comes despite that Italy, ranked two places below Georgia in the world rankings, has not won a game in the championship since 2015.
“Who’s in charge here? Are World Rugby in charge or are the individual nations who run these competitions in charge?” adds Leo
“The other question is of why there is this emphasis from World Rugby to look at trying to move into emerging markets like the US, Brazil and Germany? We need to look inside the camp and look at what we are doing in the countries that already play rugby. Are we doing enough for them?
“We need to answer that before we start saying that we have this great game. This has highlighted that, actually, we don’t have this great game that we thought we did. It was a bit of a myth. That myth has been broken in the last 48 hours. We have seen the true colors of where we are as a sport. Hopefully, we will start to realize that before it’s too late.”