Pacific Island players face losing potentially up to 40 percent of their salary by opting to go to the Rugby World Cup, instead of retiring from Tests to take up improved contracts with new clubs.
Dan Leo, the European Cup-winning Samoa lock who has spent ten years playing in Europe with Wasps, Bordeaux Bègles, Perpignan and now London Irish, has spoken out over a situation that is being faced by several Pacific Island players ahead of next season.
“I have had the pressure of choosing between whether or not to play for my country right through my career. It’s probably even worse now because of the pressure on clubs to succeed," Leo told Planet Rugby in an exclusive interview.
"I can say confidently that every Pacific Island player when they’re talking with clubs will be pressurised to declare themselves unavailable for internationals. Two contracts, two salaries, one for if they retire/refrain from Tests and one if they don’t which can vary from up to 30 or 40 percent."
Speaking four months ahead of this year’s World Cup, the 32-year-old has lifted the lid on a practice that isn’t new but is more damaging than ever to the progress of Tier Two nations. Samoa, Fiji and Tonga all face the risk of losing their top players to an early retirement because of the money on offer by teams to not lose their players for large parts of the season.
"You’re generally dealing with one or two year contracts, year to year, and clubs plan accordingly. At any one time a third of the squad is going to be off contract, going through the negotiation processes, including a third of the Samoan guys in the national squad. Sometimes that can be an easy process but in a World Cup year we’re away from June until at the earliest when the group stages finish on October 10th.
“Which clubs are going to want to pay for a player who won’t be around for four months?
"Next year is massively important in the Premiership with the possibility of ring-fencing, so clubs are investing wisely to have as many top players as possible around as everyone wants a good start. So who are the easiest guys to pressure into retirement so they can always play for their clubs? Those who aren’t being financially remunerated sufficiently by their countries at the World Cup, which are the Pacific Island boys."
Clubs being eager to save money from a business perspective might be understandable, but targeting a certain group of players and looking to exploit them isn’t.
Census Johnston, now 33, was according to Leo offered a further two-year extension on the end of his current deal with Toulouse that expires in 2016 if he opted to retire from Test rugby.
“It’s sad for Samoa, because we lose our most experienced tighthead prop, the cornerstone of our pack and one of our world class players.
“I’m not here to judge Census for his decision, because I can totally see why he chose to do that. If it comes down to a decision of whether you’re going to put bread on the table or not, what are you going to do? You’ll look after your family every time.
“No one will speak up based on that risk of jeopardising their career, because everyone needs money.”
Other Samoan players, around three of four, are currently facing a similar situation.
“There’s no regulations or ways of stopping clubs from putting pressure on the Island boys, so everyone does it. For the credibility of the Rugby World Cup coming up and with this happening, where does that leave us?
"This issue is nothing new, it came up before with the Fijians in 2011 (when Racing Métro coach Simon Mannix, who was later fired, revealed the situation with Sireli Bobo and Jone Qovu). Keeping the whole thing quiet has been what I’ve experienced in the last six months.”
Leo has held talks with one English and two top-flight French clubs since deciding to leave London Irish, with all the offers he’s received being on the condition that he retired from international rugby and doesn’t go to the Rugby World Cup. That comes after similar experiences with his previous clubs during a successful career.
Having been to two World Cups in 2007 and 2011 and after speaking out last November over the failures of the Samoan Rugby Union, Leo isn’t afraid to go public over an issue which damages the credibility of the sport.
Progress has been made for Samoa since last year’s threat to go on strike for the fixture against England at Twickenham, with changes to the SRU’s management along with the formation and hard work of the Pacific Island Players Association, as work continues with both parties to ensure Samoan players know that a financial agreement will be in place ahead of the tournament in September.
However, the unethical issue of players being forced to choose between club or country is still to be addressed.
Leo recalls having to make an uneasy decision between representing Wasps or the Pacific Islanders back in 2008. With the Premiership club losing a number of players to England in Leo's positions – Simon Shaw, Tom Rees, James Haskell, Tom Palmer – he was asked to stay put.
“I was young and probably a bit naive. It’s one of the regrets I have, that I stayed, because looking back that was the last tour for the Islanders team before it disbanded. You think you are doing the right thing by the club and that your loyalty will be rewarded.
"Unfortunately when my contract came up for renewal their, it didn't work out that way. I realised there was no loyalty for making the decision to not play for the Pacific Islanders.
"I look back on those years and definitely have fond memories with Wasps, but that’s just the ugly nature of professionalism."
Should he decide to play on, Leo faces losing a third of his potential salary by opting to go to the World Cup rather than retiring and starting the new season with a new club. Describing himself at the low end in terms of his earnings, the amounts that the top players could lose from representing their countries would be even higher.
“The Island players don’t want to be making money from going to a World Cup, but they definitely don’t want to be losing money. At the tournament we get paid £400 a week, which wouldn’t even cover my rent.
“More clubs are realising that they can get away with it and nothing is being done about it. It’s not a new issue, it comes up every World Cup year with the Pacific Island guys. Guys like Bobo and Qovu are just the public cases. There are loads more.”
Representing your country at a World Cup is supposed to be the highest honour in sport, yet for many players outside of the top nations it’s now a sacrifice as they reluctantly turn down better salaries to play for their country.
That notion shouldn’t sit well with people within the sport who are excited about a World Cup which is meant to elevate the rugby union to the next level.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow. The great Pacific Island sides and other rugby nations will never be able to fulfil their potential as long as this shady practice carries on.
Dan Leo was speaking exclusively to Ben Coles