Pacific stresses caution on World Rugby promises

The Pacific Rugby Players Welfare group is stressing caution over big promises being made by the two contenders for the World Rugby Chairmanship.

The incumbent Sir Bill Beaumont is standing for a second four-year term and had promised a major review of the way the governing body is run if re-elected, including a fresh look at eligibility rules which restrict players to representing one country for life.

He is being challenged by his deputy, former Argentina halfback Agustin Pichot, who has proposed a greater voice and more top-level matches for emerging nations, such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, and said the Covid-19 pandemic was an opportunity for the global realignment of the sport.

But the Chief Executive of the UK-based Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, Dan Leo, is sceptical about any promise of dramatic change.

"Both contenders for the chairman role, Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot, have both been active in the organisation for the last four years, so in terms of the changes that we can hope for or expect are probably not as dramatic as we'd like."

"Both have come out with manifestos outlining various ways they would like to reform the game but you know, as we've seen and as we know, talk is cheap and it's going to come down to the World Rugby Council on vetoing those through," he said.

Leo, a former Samoa lock who played 39 tests for the Manu and three for the Pacific Islanders, said the real issue remains the lack of influence that tier two unions, including the Pacific Islands, have on the World Rugby Council, the governing body's supreme legislative authority.

"We hope that it's not just politicians talking but actually this time something can be done for the global game and for the good of tier two nations of the development of the haves and have nots in sport."

Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, which looks after the interests of both current and former Pacific Island professionals, has been a leading voice in the campaign for revenue-sharing for tier two nations.

Subject to any changes as a result of the coronavirus, Wales are scheduled to host Fiji at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff this November followed by England hosting Tonga at Twickenham.

However under the current rules the host nation keeps 100 percent of gate-takings.

Dan Leo said addressing this disparity, alongside moves to a fairer voting system where all members are equal, should be at the top of World Rugby's priority list.

"Revenue-sharing is a big one for me, along with the influence on the council that is something that needs to be up top asap and that's not a long-term thing, that needs to come in right away if some of the smaller nations are going to survive in the post Covid-19 world," he said.

"Pacific Islands aren't alone in asking for that now. We see how the unions, America falling bankrupt, we're reading reports Australia's not far off, so I don't think it's just the Pacific who are crying out for a profit-share model at the moment.

"I think this crisis has brought that situation to the doorsteps to some of the richer nations, so hopefully that's something we can piggy back off and actually try and get that across the line."

Currently Pacific Island nations only have four votes on the World Rugby Council, comprised of one each for Fiji and Samoa while Oceania Rugby has two.

However, the ten nations that comprise the Six Nations and Rugby Championship have three each, while the likes of Tonga, Russia and Namibia do not have an individual seat on the council despite attending last year's World Cup.

"If the chairman has got it within their arrangement to be able to bring in a one country one vote system then that's great, but I'm not necessarily convinced that that is the case, explained Leo from his home in south-west London, not far from the 82,000 capacity Twickenham Stadium.

"My understanding is the World Rugby Council votes on everything and currently it's that lack of influence that Pacific Island unions and other tier two nations and tier three nations have on that Council that is actually holding us back in a lot of ways."

"I'd love to believe the things that we're hearing at the moment, both candidates have come out strongly, I think one of Pichot's key points was that he wants to increase the fairness of that voting system and then for Beaumont to come out in saying he'd look at regulation A which is all around eligibility and actually reviewing that would be great.

"It's something that factors heavily when it comes to Pacific Islands being able to select our best players and actually accessing players who may have been capped for other countries, but again, those things would have to be abide by the World Rugby Council."

"Of course being a figure head, a chairman, is a great honour, but how much influence those roles actually do have on World Rugby policy is another question."

Leo was not optimistic that the likes of England, Scotland and Wales can be convinced to give up some of their own voting power on the World Rugby Council in order to create a more equal system.

"From what I believe that's one of the key points of Agustin Pichot's and how he plans on getting that across the table is anyone's guess because, as I said, it's easy to make these big claims but very hard to get these nations, particularly the ones with three votes, to think outside of what is good for their own markets and releasing grip on that power is not something people or a nation is going to volunteer," he said.

"I'd like to see a little bit more meat around his plans for this. He did mention it was a long term plan to even out the fairness across the voting table and I'd imagine that's not going to be an easy feat so I wish him well."

"Of course, we're optimistic that that can happen, but I don't think it comes down to any one-man that's going to be able to push that through; chairman, vice-chairman's it's going to come down to everybody, it's going to come down to a change in mind-set from those bigger unions, and actually, I think the time is right for that."

Pacific players feeling the brunt of Covid-19

Pacific Rugby Players Welfare has 800 members playing in both professional and non professional leagues throughout Europe and the UK.

Dan Leo, who played the bulk of his professional career in England and France, said with all sport across the world at a stand-still the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to bite.

"I think it's only hitting home now for a lot of players," he said.

"It's probably a nice timely rest for some of the guys, but for others there are the financial implications and the social isolation brings a whole lot of different challenges."

"Isolation from being away from family and living and playing in Europe can be difficult in the best of circumstances, but you've always got your team mates and their families that you can link up with but when you can't do that, loneliness does become a real issue and I think the effects of that is just starting to be felt more now."

Leo said Pacific Rugby Players Welfare counsellors were working in overdrive to provide support to its members.

"We're an independent organisation and we're not a rich organisation, we can't financially support all of the players who probably need it at the moment so we've had to be a bit creative in terms of how we can support players through this time, he said.

Like many organisations, technology is helping to bridge the gap, with Zoom meetings becoming a weekly feature.

"The great thing is we had 40 key Pacific Island players on that call from all over the world and the message has been to keep people connected," Leo said.

"We don't want anyone to slip through the cracks here and to suffer in silence. We've got this organisation set up to help people and we need to be of help and that means talking to people."

All of the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare Board members have set a goal to make three calls a day to keep in touch with their 800 members.

"If we all make three calls a day over the week, we're pretty sure we can touch base with every single one of our players that's playing here, he said.

"We've got 800 players playing in Europe now either professionally or semi-professionally and a lot of those players, particularly those in the semi-professional leagues, are really struggling.

"We're talking about premiership and top 14 players losing up to 25% of their salaries and for the players below that, a lot are probably on about an average of 20,000 euros, they would have lost up to 75% of that and their jobs so there is a struggle but we are trying to work through that and the key for us is keeping players connected and helping out the ones that need it the most as best that we can.

New Zealand Rugby announced on Thursday it was freezing 50 percent of forecast player payments for 2020, while the Fiji Rugby Union is also cutting costs.

But Leo said the fact the vast majority of Pacific Island players earn their living abroad should help local unions.

"I think Pacific Island unions are used to operating on shoestring budgets and have become quite resourceful in doing so and we operate pretty well having little to no money," he said.

"I think our biggest curse In the past is probably during this time is our biggest blessing in the fact that none of our players are contracted to the Island unions."

"We've got this situation now in Australia where paying the players could actually send the Australian rugby union under an the Pacific unions don't have that."

"We've got very low operating costs so I think our main challenge in the Pacific is getting through this lock-down period and helping players while they're potentially not earning as much," he said.

"We don't say it publicly because obviously there's some people going through some very hard times but my personal belief is that when we do come out of this on the other side, there's real potential for a phoenix to rise from the ashes and for Pacific Islands to be in a stronger position given everything else that's happening around the globe and in the sport than where we were before this happened," Leo said.