The Samoa Rugby Union needs a hand up, not a hand out, writes Scotty Stevenson. It also needs a complete administrative overhaul and an end to the culture of intimidation, cronyism and silence that disrespects the players and the game.
Here we are again, then. Samoan rugby’s overlord, prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Maliegaoi, is passing around the dish to save the union’s blushes after yet another year of poor financial management and organisational ineptitude. He has declared the union bankrupt, but it’s a moral bankruptcy that should be of more concern than a financial one.
There is a terrible culture of bullying at play here and the victims are the players who want to represent their country on the world stage. Few seem willing to criticise the Samoa Rugby Union because of it. Those that do are quickly moved on. Just ask Mahonri Schwalger, who captained the side to the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and who was quickly jettisoned by the selectors after daring to lift the lid on the farcical management performance during the tournament.
The prime minister’s grip on the union – he is the chairman – has long been a matter of genuine concern for the players, and many of the fans, who have questioned his interference in high performance matters. As recently as the last world cup in 2015, Schwalger addressed Samoa’s early exit from the tournament, saying “We’ve got to stop playing politics. It’s about rugby.”
Just yesterday, Daniel Leo, the former Manu Samoa lock who agitated for better financial transparency from the union during a proposed player strike in 2014 and who now helps run Pacific Rugby Player Welfare, a fully independent organisation created to support professional players of Pacific origin, told BBC Radio, “[During that process] we didn’t manage to overthrow the prime minister as chairman of the rugby union. The problem is we have people making decisions without any business acumen or professional rugby nous who are voted in because people are scared not to vote them in because they are powerful politicians.”
Just consider Leo’s choice of words for a moment. “Overthrow the prime minister” is not a phrase you hear every day.
Other well-known advocates for better outcomes for Pacific Islands rugby, such as Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu have also despaired at the latest development for the Samoa Rugby Union. In a tweet yesterday he said:
To place some context around Fuimaono-Sapolu’s comments, he has also taken a well-known stand against what he considers an oppressive world rugby regime that does little more than throw scraps to the Pacific nations. In part of a further tweet, referring to the upcoming Autumn tests, he says:
Don't you dare place blame solely on Samoa! In what fucked up world did RFU think taking ALL gate money from sold out tests with Pacific nations would help grow the game? Selfish twats! Enjoy playing by yourselves in the most bullshit "global" game. https://t.co/Q7kMIJrZZV
— fuimaono-sapolu (@Eliota_Sapolu) November 8, 2017
It is obvious – and has long been so – that rugby’s hegemony all but ensures the Pacific Islands will never have the resources they require to grow into a global force in the game, despite – or because of – their position as net exporters of talent. However, it is equally clear that the current Samoan set-up has done nothing to give itself a fighting chance to redress the imbalances.
Men like Schwalger, Leo and Fuimaono-Sapolu all have taken different approaches to the same challenge: how to ensure the future health of rugby in Samoa. To date, all have heightened awareness of the disgraceful gap between the Tier One unions and the Pacific, but none have been successful in separating the Samoan State from the management of its rugby union.
The prime minister, aided and abetted by those attracted to this kind of cause célèbre, created much political capital in 2015 when he announced the All Blacks would play a historic test in Apia. Those familiar with the parlous state of the union’s accounts at the time cautioned against the move, fearing it would only worsen the existing problem. For all the joy that game may have brought to the Samoan people (and few could argue against the romanticism of the venture) the union was left a further NZD$1 million in debt. That takes an awful lot of sausage sizzles to repay.
Now they cannot pay. That is the message from the man with whom the buck must first stop, the chairman of the union. It is time for the prime minister to relinquish his control of the sport. Samoan rugby needs a new generation of men and women who can take its fair claims to the world body, and a world body who will actually listen.
I am aware that I am Palagi, writing about Samoan rugby. The above is an opinion piece on the management of Samoan rugby, based on discussions held over a long period of time with many insiders, some of whom have been too scared to come forward. I do not have full knowledge of Samoa’s political and cultural institutions and wish to make clear that this column makes no claim to the contrary.
I was against the test in Apia on the basis that it was patently obvious it would only make Samoan rugby’s financial situation worse than before. I am on record as having held this opinion at the time.
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