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The Great Migration: a Rugby World investigation into player movement

The Great Migration. Illustration by Simon Scarsbrook Rugby World

As the global rugby landscape seemingly shrinks, Rugby World investigates the good and bad experiences of athletes who have emigrated to play – from exploitation to prosperity. This investigation first appeared in Rugby World magazine on 5 December.


THE CHANCE to move abroad for work can be an exciting switch for so many of us. And for some rugby players, it can be the path to a much better life.

That is the promise. There are a great number of fantastic stories out there of stars who have been successful in their search for glory and financial security. As the modern game evolves and seeks to be more visible, though, Rugby World wants to shine a light on some of those who are still in the darkness, demanding more change or who are simply rarely seen by us.

We chronicle tales of Pacific Islanders moving to Western Europe or Asia, South Africans heading north and Eastern Europeans spreading out. We see deaths in foreign lands, the scouting of kids and how some lives vastly improve. Our aim is to show the pitfalls and positives of migrating…

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PRPW hosts: Henry Tuilagi and Mike Umaga in Perpignan Rugby World

PACIFIC WARRIORS

THERE IS a buzz as the pigs are buried for cooking and players start to turn up. This is Perpignan, where a band of Pacific Islanders from across southern France have come to meet with former Samoa lock Dan Leo’s Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW) group.

The PRPW plan is to get gatherings of players like this talking, so that in the future players can air grievances and be offered advice and services. This is a relatively young venture – not to be confused with Pacific Rugby Players, official partners of the international Rugby Players’ Association (IRPA) – but it has momentum.

They have stops in Clermont and Lyon in the next few days too, so PRPW can talk with elite players and guys from the lower leagues of Fédérale 1 and 2. I am only there on day one, in the South, but in a few hours there are a number of chats about what they hope to achieve and I’m handed some unique insights.

Depending on who you talk to, there could be up to 600 players of Pacific Island decent in France alone, with the greatest number of them from Fiji. The fact no one has an exact figure is due to monitoring, something many would like to see more of from Pacific unions. However, with such a spread throughout pro, semi-pro and even ‘amateur’ leagues, there are many complex issues to contend with.

Tax has been a big one. While the system in France moves to PAYE in the new year, some players here talk of how the previous end-of-year, self-assessment system caught many out – badly. A lack of education can be the key factor here – though good agents will help with this – but others complain that there is an inflexibility in French culture, an unwillingness to acknowledge the life experiences islanders bring, or more fittingly, don’t bring with them. So while I meet a grinning Alex Tulou of Castres, who is incredibly grateful for his successes in France, aside him are men with vastly different experiences.

Proud Tongan: Kisi Pulu Rugby World

There’s a significant cultural obligation so many share: sending money home to support families on the islands. It can be hard. Former Tonga prop Kisi Pulu, who is now retired, explains: “Not in the Top 14 but in Fédérale 1 or 2, these guys come straight from the islands and are getting paid maybe €600 (£530) a month. Their houses aren’t right, they aren’t healthy.

“Some young guys in Fed 1 that I met, they don’t have breakfast. They said the coach complained, ‘Why aren’t you putting on weight?’ They have to sacrifice sending their €500 home for paying the power and rent. So some maybe end up with just €20 in their hand and that’s when you start going out for the cheapest foods, which is fast food like McDonald’s.”

Of course not every player is perfect. But at the extreme end, there are those who feel emotionally stranded being so many miles from home.

Ifa Taukafa is a hooker in Dijon. He’s had enough. Over the phone he says: “The struggle is real in the Fédérale. Boys really find it difficult. They play for the club like a commodity. It is inhumane the way some of these guys are treated. They come over dreaming of making their daily bread, but it is difficult lower down the chain.”

Taukafa met a player not paid for four months. There is shame and pressure to provide. Depression is another issue some silently face. He sighs: “I’ve sent too many brothers back in coffins.”

Big meeting: Rugby World observes a PRPW meet in Perpignan Alex Roca

One such death he mentions is that of Tarbes prop Isireli Temo, who took his own life in December 2016. Narbonne prop Sunio Koto was the one who called Temo’s family to break the news. He will fight to help other young men who are far from home and struggling – Koto tells us that he offers to check young Fijian players’ contracts before they sign.

Charging ahead: Sunia Koto of Fiji Rugby World

However, there are two fundamental points for Koto. First, he and so many others love France. In the main, they see a lot of good done. But his other point relates to the few who exploit: he wants islanders to educate themselves about the pitfalls of moving abroad.

Agents can get an unfair rap. There are a lot of diligent, empathetic agents out there. But how can these young islanders know exactly who they are?

Simon Porter, a director at the CSM agency, would like there to be more accessible listings of the professional operators working in the Pacific.

“The key word is transparency,” says Porter. “If you had an accreditation system where you had some form of regulation that involved the Fiji Rugby Union and Samoan Rugby Union etc, they know what’s going on, they know these players are going, and so they have the opportunity to talk to them about where they are in their plans.

“One of the most difficult things about being an agent is ‘reputation’. You know what you hear people say about agents and you know the problem is uneducated agents, so let’s get some regulation out there. Let’s get some transparency in the system and find out what’s actually going on, let’s know who the people working in the islands are.

“Let’s provide some education, get them talking to the (International Rugby Players’ Association), let’s provide support. It sounds like a lot of whispering behind hands and all that sort of stuff when we could just bring it all out in the open.”

ONE YEAR IN ASIA

IN DECEMBER 2015, Honda Heat, then of Japan’s Top League, announced the death of their player Talifolau Takau. The club released a short statement about the Tongan prop, saying in English: “By the (autopsy) result, the cause of death of Takau had a diagnosis from suffocation by the vomiting. I can confirm that it is not the thing with alcohol and (drugs).” The club also arranged for his body to be sent home to his family in Tonga.

Been there: Hale T-Pole takes on Japan Rugby World

The club wouldn’t answer further questions from Rugby World about this incident, but through anonymous interviews with two players who were with the club at the time, we understand that Takau’s body was discovered fully clothed and alone in his room, in the team hotel the day after playing for the B team against Yamaha Jubilo. We were also informed by these team-mates that there were suspicions within the squad that Takau was concussed in that fixture, though nobody was sure.

One of the anonymous players was keen to stress that the Heat have improved their handling of incidents of concussion, that players suspected of suffering head injuries are moved into team dormitories and are placed under mandatory surveillance for 24 hours.

Our sources also made it clear that although they think things have improved in recent years, they would like stricter guidelines for concussion management throughout Japan, with neutral, World Rugby-approved doctors overseeing suspected incidents of on-field concussion.

The man currently looking out for Pacific rugby players in conjunction with the International Rugby Players’ Association is former back-rower Hale T-Pole, who it turns out went to the same school in Tonga as Takau. A few years on, many are keen to move beyond apportioning any blame in this sad affair, but regardless of what led us here, T-Pole has this to say on the quiet throughout the rest of the rugby world since the incident: “If this was an Englishman dying in another country, we would have heard a lot more. But because it was a Tongan, it was almost like they just went, ‘Ahhh, it’s an island boy, just forget it’.”

There are established links between Tongan and Japanese schools, with a number of scholarship players working through the university system and into the pro teams throughout the country. There is said to be a strong community among Japan-based Tongans. They are a group to be respected.

Attraction: Sri Lanka in 2015 Rugby World

In the same year as Takau passed, World Rugby were looking into another incident involving a Pacific player in Asia. Emori Waqavulagi had been called up to the Fiji sevens squad, only for it to be discovered that he and fellow Fijian Joseph Dunn had played for Sri Lanka when they were ineligible.

The Sri Lankan union was heavily fined for using the two players during the Asian 5 Nations – to the tune of £25,000 – and Waqa missed out on playing for Fiji. The player was approached by Rugby World to discuss his motives for running out in the colours of Sri Lanka, but he did not respond.

OUT OF AFRICA

WE HAVE met Jurie Roux, SA Rugby’s CEO, to discuss his country’s bid for the 2023 World Cup, but something else is on his mind: the player drain.

“Last year we had 373 players playing in European club competitions,” Roux tells us. “Any other country that loses that amount of players cannot compete on a national level. Take 373 players out of New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland, France – see if they compete. It would be tough. We have the proof.”

SA rugby chief: Jurie Roux Rugby World

But that is not the worst of it. “They are becoming younger,” he says. “People are coming to our youth weeks, our Craven Weeks – our U18, aspirational tournaments. They are recruiting them at U18. The list (of talent leaving) is getting longer.”

Is such recruitment really happening in this Tier One nation? “It’s definitely happening,” says Andrew Binikos, general manager of the Sharks Rugby Academy in Southern KwaZulu-Natal, “and it’s happening in front of everyone’s eyes. It’s not even secretive.”

He believes there is a perception within groups of young Afrikaans players that, due to the inherent quota system in rugby academies and national sides, opportunities to climb the ladder are getting slimmer. Whether or not this is true of the majority, Binikos is aware of overseas suitors. “Some, especially the French, have capitalised on this – they even come to the shores of South Africa for Craven Week, our famous competition. And they actually scout players there who are 16, as early as that. So at 18, they can go straight overseas after school. There’s a massive, massive player drain.”

The future: Baby Boks in action Rugby World

Binikos points to the tie-in between famous Grey College and Montpellier, with the Top 14 club helping launch the Badawi Legacy Scholarship Programme. He sees it as a continued sign of the struggle to hold onto future stars.

Roux says of this scholarship: “That (Montpellier deal) is a legitimate, academic scholarship. If you look at the detail there it’s academic and there are like two rugby scholarships. But surely there will be an arrangement coming very, very soon.

“Even though Grey College is probably the biggest supporter of South African rugby as a school and has produced the most Springboks in our country, somewhere somebody is going to see an opportunity. We are obviously going to do stuff to block it.”

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There will be many in South Africa heartened to hear that there should be a fight on this front. However, there are those who are concerned that there is another, insidious force at play that needs stamping out. A conglomeration of agents in South Africa have been calling for tighter restrictions on rogue agents. According to James Adams, of In Touch Sports, there are some who get around the restrictions placed on registered agents by deregistering and operating as attorneys.

Adams feels SARU aren’t helping themselves. He has appealed to Roux as CEO, trying to force a change in legislation, but he is waiting for the union to actually act.

“There are a handful of companies in South Africa that control 80-90% of the market force. As the Agents Board, we are trying to regulate our industry, but there are certain individuals that seem hell-bent on holding back necessary regulation changes. The unnecessary red tape needs to be addressed ASAP.

“As a result we are reaching a stage now where if it (legislation change) doesn’t happen by the end of this year, we are all about to split from SARU’s Agents Association and disband. Should this happen we are just going to move every player we can abroad. We have all had enough. Why must we support provincial unions who go and work with unaccredited agents? Why must we keep helping South African rugby, yet we don’t get the support needed to change the regulations for the better of the industry? Why must we keep players in South Africa? Discussions have been going on for two years with very little headway made.

Playing on: South Africa fight on while talent leaves Rugby World

“If things don’t change soon, we will be seeing an exodus of players on a larger scale than ever experienced before. If changes are not made, I for one have no interest in keeping players in South Africa. If a player can earn double or triple overseas and wants to set up a future for his family and obtain an EU passport, how can I not support such a player’s wishes?

“The reality is that up to now we have kept the majority of our clients in South Africa but more needs to be done in terms of communication between SARU, the Springboks, provincial unions and agents, or South African rugby as a whole is going to be in huge trouble post-2018 Super Rugby.”

Johan van Heerden is one South African who moved away. Now playing for Baia Mare and with 24 caps under the Romanian flag, the lock agrees that there are too many rogue lawyers who have not passed agent exams in South Africa. Twice, he says, he was convinced by such characters to pay them for doing deals but in the end he had to talk to clubs directly.

Happy in Romania: Johan Van Heerden Rugby World

However, as someone who has moved away from South African rugby, he disagrees that the drain is all down to bad guys and quota systems. For him there was more of an issue of class.

“Every South African’s dream is to play for the Springboks but they always tell you you’re too small, you’re not big enough or you’re not fast enough,” van Heerden says. “That is just a saying they all use. Mostly in South Africa there’s a big thing about what school you went to. If you’re not in a big private school like Affies, Paarl, Gymnasium, your chances of playing professional rugby are very slim.

“I came from a small school and they reckon those schools aren’t good enough. That’s not the case because there are a lot of kids in those small schools who have better talent. Just because your parents didn’t have the money to get you into one of those bigger schools, that is the case for you.

“So many kids realise this and then someone scouts them, and they decide ‘Well, South Africa doesn’t want to look at me so maybe I should try outside.’ This is why so many players leave.”

He was sceptical when he first moved to Romania and took a little time to shine, but van Heerden has reinvented himself out in Eastern Europe.

BEASTS FROM THE EAST

WITH SO many players in France, there could be an assumption that there was some sort of talent-grab for big forwards from the East. However, when a question to this effect was put to Georgia head coach Milton Haig, he pointed out that a lot of the Georgians tumbling into the Fédérale leagues did so to make money. There was no suggestion of cruel clubs wooing players with never-materialising deals, just average club players searching for a better life and a match fee.

Haig also pointed out something else, saying: “With the change in their eligibility rules, the FFR have cracked down on foreigners playing in (elite club) academies there, so we are finding that not a lot of our players are going to France now. The example is that only one player from our U20s got a French contract offer after the Junior World Cup this year, whereas in previous years we would have at least six or seven.”

In country: Georgia head coach Milton Haig Rugby World

This was backed by Vasil Abashidze, an ex-international who manages elite players from Georgia and Eastern Europe for the Sports Management Company. He says it is becoming harder to move a player and that the French market has changed, even from two years ago.

There is still a sense of a great many talented Georgian players – not just forwards – being underappreciated.

A lively little chat with Bidzina ‘Bibi’ Samkharadze, a 61-cap scrum-half, reveals that there is a market value for talent heading outwards from the East. “They find us cheap as rugby players, because in Georgia the Championship is not well paid. So we prefer to go outside France to get more money.”

Samkharadze knows players in Fédérale 1 and 2 who enjoy the lifestyles they discovered. He knows some who work part-time and also play for extra money, but these “cheaper players” still have a better life.

As for any talent drain of their own, it is not a bad thing in Bibi’s eyes. “Yes, we will still lose players because they may find teams in Russia for more pay, or Romania. So you must make the choice: play more rugby or get a job and retire from rugby. I hope that it doesn’t happen in France (a crackdown on foreigners) because I know many young players whose dream is to start playing rugby in Georgia and then find a good team in France.”

Huge moment: Georgia beat Tonga in 2015 Rugby World

The search for money is not an exclusively Georgian endeavour. On 14 October, Siberian side Krasny Yar stunned the reigning European Challenge Cup holders, Stade Français, by winning 34-29 at home. On the score sheet that day was Moldovan lock Andrei Mahu. His journey has seen him leave home at 20, stopping off in Romania, Italy and then Russia. He is part of a transient generation.

Mahu explains: “Life in Moldova is all about economics and politics. All the young people try to leave Moldova because there are no prospects, they see no future and I was one of them. I’d say that more than half of my (childhood) friends are now abroad. We have a lot of rugby boys who leave their sport and go to work abroad because they need the money.”

Mahu believed that he had the potential to improve vastly as a player, so left a country with no scope to hone his skills and set out abroad. There are opportunities out there and countries willing to take in good players.

But if Bibi thinks Georgians are cheap, 26-year-old Mahu has another take on the subject: “If we were Georgians or islanders we would get paid much more, but if you’re from Moldova, nobody knows this country and we don’t have a rugby tradition, so they don’t take us seriously.

“Players like Dmitri Arhip break the ice in the biggest leagues in Europe and people begin to ask questions about who they are, ‘Where is Moldova?’ I’m sure we have more guys like this but we need to grow them.”

Zebre stint: Moldovan lock Andrei Mahu Rugby World

Look through some of the best packs in the European Cup. There is value in having a monstrous East European or two. However, look at some of the Eastern teams and there are noticeable differences out there too.

In November, Germany had a number of South Africans on show and Romania caught the eye with the inclusion of seven players of Pacific descent. Johan van Heerden was with them. The instinct for many is to say that this is mercenary, that the shift from three years to five for qualifying as a resident in a different rugby nation is so vital.

Van Heerden says he gets that but he also says that he, like so many others, left their country of their own free will. Playing anywhere at the top level is a dream so few get to realise. And what’s more, he says, by cutting down such chances to qualify and play at a higher level, you could be taking away future earning potential for some.

CONCLUSION

IN YELLING for a crackdown on players changing nationality for caps, we can focus too much on Test rugby. The real drive of this report has been to look at those moving to simply make a living.

New avenues open up for athletes, old ones grow difficult to navigate for officials and agents. We cannot lose sight of the critical need at all times: to look after the players.

This can come from much better monitoring of movements by those leaving developing nations. It can come from disciplining ‘agents’ who do not adhere to union regulations, or helping smaller unions promote preferred operators. It can be making examples of exploiters.

We should celebrate the stories of those who find financial security and indeed joy. But in hearing of deaths and, elsewhere, allegations of underhanded management, we must demand greater scrutiny.

This investigation first appeared in Rugby World magazine on 5 December. The issue is still on sale until 31st December.