Review: Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby

This week I thought I would veer away from the balance sheets and financial jargon, and instead look at a real-life financial issue through reviewing a recent documentary. The documentary, presented and co-produced by former Samoa international Dan Leo, superbly sets out how three Pacific island nations – Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji – dominate the world of rugby on the pitch, yet financially they are left in the dark by World Rugby and the Tier 1 nations. Titled Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal and Pacific Island Rugby, it is a must-watch for any sports enthusiast, law enthusiast, or for the lay man with nothing to do on a Sunday evening.

This review will highlight the core themes that the documentary touches upon, and then give an insight into how this is part of a much wider problem revolving around wealth and race.

How Important is Rugby to the Pacific Nations?

The most striking stat throughout the documentary is that nearly a quarter of all professional rugby players come from the three islands – Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji - that have a total population size of 1.5 million. To put that into perspective, my maths makes these three islands approximately 0.01875 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 per cent of rugby professionals come from these islands. As such, one would expect Pacific rugby players to be treated fairly on the international stage.

The quantity of Pacific island rugby players means that these players (mainly playing abroad) make up nearly 20 percent of the GDP of their countries. Again, putting this into perspective, these island rugby players help their countries’ economies more than the whole of the agriculture industry helps the Indian economy (15.5 percent of total GDP). Essentially, rugby is holding up these economies, and here lies the problem.

The Truth

Pacific islands are so dependent on rugby that the rugby players have no choice but to play, even if they are paid peanuts in comparison to their global co-athletes. Adding to the fact that the talent pipeline is virtually infinite, the individuals at the top of the sport are free to exploit these players as they please. As Dan Leo states, these players are treated no better than “commodities.”

Want a real-life example? Let’s set the scene…

It’s England vs Fiji in 2016, with Twickenham Stadium playing host to 82,000 eager, paying fans. These fans are paying for the experience to watch these two teams play rugby. Yet, while the England players will get paid £22,000 for the game, the Fijians get paid a mere £400 each.

Not only is this shocking, but as the interviews within the documentary point out, this exploitation is on the periphery of slavery.

Dan Leo himself cannot help “but compare colonialism to what’s happening in rugby [today].” The question that has to be put forward is as follows: What does differ from the American plantations from centuries ago? People of colour are being forced into work, paid a token in comparison to the revenue they bring in for other parties (with Twickenham making in the region of £5 million per game), and then forgotten about. In one case involving Sione Vaiomounga (8 international caps), he was chucked (literally) onto the freezing streets of Romania to die after suffering from kidney failure.

Former Tonga captain Inoke Afeaki even describes the Tier 1 countries as having a “slave-owner mentality,” by which they believe they “own” the Pacific players. With players throwing these serious accusations at the individuals at the top of the sporting pyramid, it is clear to see how the financial decisions of the elite few are negatively affecting the rest. The problem is that no one can agree on a solution that suits all parties.

How Can This Be Rectified?

The documentary highlights a few ideas that could improve the situation. The two major points look to combat the Tier system within rugby, and change how players are paid in relation to the match revenues that they are a part of.

First, it is suggested that the whole voting hierarchy of Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations is restructured. At present, the Tier 1 teams have a voting power that cannot be matched by Tier 2 teams, so there are suggestions of a one-vote-system being fairer. However, Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby, has objections to this due to the Tier 1 nations’ influence on the sport.

Secondly, the idea has been proposed that nations are paid equally during match days, or, Pacific islanders get a split of the profits, even at an 80/20 split, which would be more than enough compared to the compensation they currently get.

Final Thoughts

World Rugby has acknowledged that change is needed. But how this will come about, especially at a time in which Covid-19 is stretching sports finance to the limit, is a critical question. Will World Rugby give a helping hand? Will the financially strong nations act in a humane manner? Or will a big corporate player within the sporting scene recognise that there is an opportunity on the islands to develop a profitable pipeline of talent if they were to invest? Only time will tell, but one would hope that these talented young professionals soon get to enjoy the game that they are such a big a part of, and that they are treated for what they are – human beings.

To finish, this article will briefly compare the treatment of the players discussed within this documentary with black American sportsman.

College sports within America refuse to pay their athletes, by which according to the NCAA, 56 percent are black in Division 1 basketball. And similarly, sporting parties are refusing to compensate native islanders for their work, despite bringing hundreds of millions of profits to the sporting world. This may not be a race issue, but white Americans are not affected to the same degree on both occasions. One must wonder if racial issues have been fully eradicated from our beautiful games as we once thought. The Premier League footballers kneeling before every game this football season epitomises how far we still have to go before minorities are appreciated financially for their contribution to the sporting world.

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