13 Aug 2013

Sport: Rugby Players Association paying off for Pacific

5:48 pm on 13 August 2013

The rugby community in Samoa, Fiji and Tonga say the formation of a Pacific Island Players Association is an important step forward for players in the professional age.

The association was formulated last year and launched a few months ago, although it's hoped to be fully up and running in time for the November test window.

Vinnie Wylie spoke to those responsible for getting the initiative off the ground.

The Pacific Island Players Association was the brainchild of Fiji international Deacon Manu, Tonga's Hale T-Pole and former Samoa captain Mahonri Schwalger. Manu has spent the past seven years playing in Wales and says the idea has been floating around for a while, it just needed someone to take the lead.

DEACON MANU : It's always sort of been in the background, all the issues associated with Pacific Island rugby, and I guess it came to a bit of a loggerheads around the Rugby World Cup. Obviously some players expressing their views through certain social media. And that sort of brought the attention back on the key issues, and from there there were a lot of good intentions, a lot of good things happening, but no-one willing to really pick it up and drive it forwards and it was long overdue for it to happen.

The executive director of the International Rugby Players Association, Rob Nicol, says the Pacific Island branch gives players from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga a united voice.

ROB NICOL: What you don't like to see is an individual athlete have to expose themselves because they come out with the issue and they highlight an issue and, if anything, they get labelled with that for the rest of their career. There are a couple of players within the Pacific Island teams at the 2011 World Cup who spoke out, out of frustration, and to a certain extent that's cost them in terms of their rugby careers and that's not the way it should be.

Earlier this year, the IRB followed through on its promise of a fairer draw for second-tier nations at the next World Cup, after criticism over the scheduling in 2011. One of the ongoing issues for the region is ensuring all of its top players are released by their clubs and made available for international duty. With professionals plying their trade across Europe, Japan and Oceania, 'Ikale Tahi international Hale T-Pole says it can be a challenge to get everyone together.

HALE T-POLE: It's easy for New Zealand and Australia and England because all of their players are based within the country, but all our players are scattered all over the world. And that's one of the main issues of trying to make the IRB and all the clubs aware is how important it is for them to release the players. We need all our best players on deck every tour and we always have to say to the club if he didn't play for Tonga you wouldn't get this player here, if the likes of George Pisi didn't play for Samoa, Northampton wouldn't have seen him play that and pick him up.

Rob Nicol says the Players Association has already developed a working relationship with key decision-makers at the IRB and major club teams, and is actively involved in discussions around player release issues and the season structure for 2016 and beyond. The litmus test will be if that progress shows through during the next international window in November.