Dan Leo on What is Needed for Eligibility Reforms to Sustainably Support Pacific Rugby

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Letter Published in Verbatim 

Friends of Pacific Rugby

In light of the recent good news regarding amendments to World Rugby Reg 8, I thought it appropriate to write this letter, firstly to thank you all and explain why this is such a landmark achievement, and secondly to encourage you as we move ahead in the knowledge that while we have witnessed a big step, the job is not yet complete.

Since the year 2000 when Regulation 8’s ‘one-nation-for-life’ rule was introduced, over 100 players with dual citizenship have been left in international rugby wilderness having been captured by the often bigger, richer union of one nation that they qualify for, only to be discarded shortly afterwards.

The practise known as ‘warehousing’- where bigger nations would hand out a few international caps to players with dual citizenship in order to lock them in- became prevalent, particularly in our Pacific communities where the lure of scholarships, jobs, professional contracts and 10-fold future earnings for becoming an All Black or Wallaby, were too strong to turn down in a close knit community of 1st and 2nd generation economic migrants with close ties and financial commitments to their islands.

While the bases of these bigger union’s professional rugby pyramids widened, elevating their performances, brands, and domestic competitions to exceptional heights, the smaller, poorer 2nd nations got further behind to the point where competing became almost impossible.

This weeks ruling allows those poorer nations to access that warehouse again – albeit after a 3 year stand down period. And that, my friends, is massive!

The new amendments aren’t perfect. I truly believe a 1.5 year stand down would be fair, allowing players to switch to their 2nd nation while still in their prime. For me, that would add to spectacle that we now expect RWC2023 to be- the importance of which I will come to later.

But let’s focus on the positives which in my eyes are numerous. Like many of you have pointed out, the bigger issue in rugby is to re-dress the balance of the finances that flow into grass-roots and player pathways. In a nut shell, financing & resourcing poorer unions so that our players don’t feel the need to commit to Tier 1 nations in the first place.

I believe that this weeks news will help address that issue and in a more sustainable way than World Rugby simply giving the Pacific Islands more hand outs.

Within minutes of the announcement by world rugby, social media lit up with potential Tonga line-ups, one which included a backline featuring Charles Piutau, Ngani Laumape, Malakai Fekitoa, Israel Folau and others. Think about what a team like that could do.

Consider for a moment Tonga’s most recent results: NZ 102 v TON 0, SCOT 36 v TON 9, ENG 69 v TON 3, Romania 32 v TON 20

Theres no way a Tonga team with the quality now available loses those games by those score lines. No way. Which moves us on to revenue. If the eligibility reform has the impact on results that I believe it will, a whole new world of financial opportunity opens up for Tonga. Heres the equation:

Access to more players= Better results = Higher ranking = Increased test matches vs Tier 1 opposition = Greater sponsorship/Broadcast Opportunities= Increased Funds = Better facilities & Development programmes on island= Access to more players

And so the cycle continues. Hopefully (and this has always been a goal of PRPW’s) after a few cycles, we do not need Regulation 8 anymore, because our unions will be in a position where they have capitalised to the point we actually have our own resources to develop and retain Pacific players to play for us first. Where results are so inspiring that kids in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji dream of playing in the Blue, Red and White jerseys of Manu Samoa, Ikale Tahi and the Flying Fijians instead of the Black or Gold.

So what are the obstacles? For me the obvious issue with the above is the state of our unions. Are the island administrators capable of capitalising on the amendments to Reg8? While I know there are some good people in those unions, I honestly don’t believe they are properly equipped yet to be able to harness the opportunities that will come with a team of stars with potential of making knock out stages of a world cup. This is where World Rugby should be focussing their finances, and where the impact of the amendments this week will be measured.

While having our players available is one thing, having the resources to bring them together long enough to train and gel as a team is still going to be an issue. A profit-share model needs to be put in place now that sees the gate from international matches split by the hosts and visitors. Theres no reason that a Tonga team featuring some of the worlds biggest names should be playing in front of a sell-out Twickenham or Murrayfield for free. The old model doesn’t work, and Reg 8 amendments will mean nothing if the result isn’t evident in the profit margin of the Pacific Union’s accounts, to be invested into local rugby pathways.

Should we achieve these things, the future is bright for Pacific rugby, and in my opinion international rugby. Having another three teams which can realistically make the Top 8 at a RWC is exciting, and will add to the aura and profitability of that competition. As the main money-maker for World Rugby, RWC profits are divided between all rugby playing nations. As long as this is done fairly and equitably (something else we need to work towards) this will have positive repercussions not just for Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, but for all nations, Tier 1, 2 and 3.

In short. Better Pacific equals better Rugby.

Now lets get back to celebrating and picking those prospect Pacific Island teams for RWC2023!

Faafetai tele lava

Dan Leo