“Stronger Together” the motto of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare, one that aptly ties in with the sentiment behind the World Rugby statement that the “sport is built upon the principles of camaraderie, fair play, respect and teamwork.”
Rugby is undeniably the epitome of a true team game with every club or team enveloped by a network of volunteers, employees, players and supporters. The spirit of rugby is seen in the bonds not just between team mates but in the friendships and relationships created in the rugby community. For players from the Pacific Islands the communal spirit of the game replicates the emphasis on community which is paramount in their culture. These are men and women for whom community and family are the team to whom they will always belong.
With the globalisation of the game Pacific Islanders have, in particular, been drawn to the lucrative opportunities of professional and semi-professional contracts which have taken them away from their communities and placed them in every conceivable corner of the world. With the increases in the number of Pacific Islanders embarking on professional contracts in Europe the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (“PRPW”) was established to provide a support network for these players and to speak out on behalf of the players who, despite appearances, are often slow to push their own agenda or admit they are struggling away from home.
Daniel Leo, former Samoan international and CEO of PRPW, similar to his own performances on the field is certainly not shying away from the issues and is very candid in detailing some of the inherent difficulties which players from the region experience when they find themselves separated from family, friends and the communal lifestyle. He admits the societal problems rife in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, such as the worryingly high instances of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, follow players across the globe and it would be “naïve to believe they weren’t echoed in the rugby community”. Faced with isolation in a foreign country and the pressure of often financially supporting family, friends and indeed entire communities at home players are often under immense pressure, unbeknownst to teammates and coaches. PRPW aims to connect these players and to provide them with that sense of community which is integral to their home environment.
Isolation is a huge issue for the players PRPW supports and their often imposing physiques can often conceal the difficulties being face when thrust into the limelight of the professional game with the additional responsibilities of supporting family at home without their support in your everyday life owing to distance. In a dressing room situation team mates can be unaware of the fact that whilst appearing to be on lucrative deals a player may in fact be sending the vast majority of his earnings home. The reality is that a player under such strains is unlikely to speak up about injuries, particularly head injuries, if it may impact their ability to provide for their families and communities.
When it comes the issue of head injuries and concussion Leo is equally direct, another trait that replicates his on-field career, “the writing is on the wall about concussion”. The information is out there for those of us in the developed world, and in particular Europe, to read, see and hear. There can be no denying concussion is a problem in the game but whilst Pacific Island players are exposed to this information when they arrive on our shores it is often the first time they are fully aware of the level of potential risks. When it comes to concussion awareness and the general attitude to head injuries in the Pacific Islands Leo gives the example of Samoa where there are few, if any, specialists with most doctors being general practitioners. There is little medical presence at games. Leo reminds me that the Pacific Islands are third world countries where resources are limited and certainly there is an information deficit in terms of players full comprehension of the impact of head injuries.
For many rugby is the opportunity to provide not only for themselves and their families but for their community en masse and players will not risk losing a potential professional contract through injury, although perhaps if better educated as to the risks they may be taking in failing to do so this would differ. Leo points not only to the lack of education on the possible ramifications of head injuries but to the way in which the game is viewed particularly in the Pacific Island region. The sport is often not equated with the skill of finding space, which many now associate with the expansive play of the New Zealand teams, but moreso with the “confrontation” and the “war” which takes place on the field of play. This culture is changing with time but it is still apparent in the game and he himself recalls a game in his youth where despite an average overall performance in the game a “big hit” rendering another player practically unconscious was worthy of praise. For a culture where status was confirmed through displays of bravery and strength it is easy to see why the brute force and physical prowess required by rugby is a popular choice. Leo humbly suggests that he was not the most skilful of players but “I knew my aggression would get me through”, those of us who watched his performances would no doubt quickly disagree with that summary as a very modest underselling of his own talent.
We discuss how rugby will tackle the issue of head injuries and concussions and in particular how it will deal with countries, such as the Pacific Islands, where the wealth of resources and supports are not as readily available as in other rugby playing nations and the answer clearly lies in education. Players, Leo says, must be educated not just to ramifications of head injuries but also down to the fundamental aspects of learning how to tackle correctly from the outset. He welcomes the changes in the laws of the game but agrees with my contention that rule changes are only as good as their enforcement.
For PRPW the two main focuses are on replicating the communities players are accustomed to in their new homes and to seeking to have some form of regulation of agents introduced to ensure that when players are making the move abroad their interests are safeguarded from the outset. Through a series of educational initiatives with Pacific Island Players PRPW is striving to prepare players for their life in Europe from the cultural changes to the day to day financial and other considerations they need to adapt to.
Where players like Daniel Leo have made the hard yards in building lives for themselves in Europe as the number of Pacific Island Players in Europe and further afield continues to grow the work of PRPW takes on further significance and players, such as Charles Piutau, Manu Tuilagi and Sene Naoupu, to name but a few, are adding themselves to the drive to put player welfare issues to the fore whilst giving even more back to their communities.
John Donne’s poem opens with the statement “No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” and that line rings even truer for the Pacific Island Players, separated from their communities, isolated from friends and family rugby becomes the epicentre of their world and their new community, their home away from home, becomes centred in the sport of rugby. In supporting player welfare in every aspect, both on and off the field, the game continues to grow and the community bonds which are built are strengthened. As the game grows it is of paramount importance that rugby does not lose that community which it has always built around it or forget that players are people first and athletes second, PRPW is ensuring that for Pacific Island players they are not just stronger together but continuing to get even stronger.
BY Iseult Cody, a collaboration with Dan Leo, CEO of PRPW