Rugby should be ashamed of how it treats Pacific Islanders

Ed King
4 min readNov 20, 2017


Fijian dancers at the opening ceremony of the COP23 climate summit, which ran from November 6–18

“We are tired of being treated like slaves.”

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu is not one to mince words. And the former Samoan rugby international was on form when we spoke on a crackly Skype line last week.

His anger is directed at a global rugby regime that seems weighted against smaller rugby nations, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer.

When Samoa play England at Twickenham this weekend, the RFU is likely to reap an estimated £5 million. England’s players will net over £20,000 each. Samoa’s? A few hundred quid.

Add to the mix Samoa’s rugby body went bankrupt two weeks back, and the situation gets bleaker.

“This is a capitalist model of slavery — it is ridiculous,” he says. “We have not changed the profit model. We get zero percent.”

The RFU will give Samoa around £75,000, and players from across the British game have started tweeting their support for the country’s players.

There’s even talk of some England stars donating some of their match fees. Still, there’s charity and there’s parity — and it’s the latter that enrages Fuimaono-Sapolu.

“It’s not the first time it has happened… in 2014 [the hashtag] was Samoa Unite,” he says.

“People are saying this is all the SRU’s fault — but even if you changed that you are still going to get zero percent of revenues.”

International rugby keeps the global game in business.

Decisions are typically made with revenues in mind, as evidenced by a decision to award the 2023 World Cup to France over Ireland or South Africa.

Of all the major Unions it’s England who make the most money: in 2016 RFU accounts reveal £407.1 million in revenues, its highest turnover in history.

Pacific islands struggle to compete. Samoa’s largest stadium fits 10,000 fans. Few top class nations ever travel to Apia to play, and as a result the rugby union has a tiny income.

Yet for such a rich body, England’s team displays an increasing reliance on Pacific Island talent to keep them competing with the best.

Two Fijians and one Tongan starred in the Red Rose at the weekend against Australia. When fit Manu Tuilagi (Samoa) and Billy Vunipola (Tonga) are two of the country’s biggest names.

Now no-one thinks twice when huge Polynesians turn out for England — or in the case of Talupe Faletau — Wales and the Lions. It’s part of rugby’s rich cultural fabric.

500 now play in Europe, according to the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare group, led by ex-Wasps and Samoa lock Dan Leo.

Fijians are cropping up on the wing for France, Samoans at centre for Ireland, Tongans beef up Romania’s pack.

No-one was surprised when Australia’s Wallabies fielded a 34-strong squad this June, 19 of whom had Pacific Island heritage.

So systemic is the plundering, respected Sunday Times rugby correspondent Stephen Jones refers to it as “the rape of Samoa and the rest”.

These small islands in the Pacific represent the heritage and spiritual home of men who have revolutionised the global game.

The size, pace and power of Polynesians means they are ideally suited to rugby: think Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Olo Brown, Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko.

Yet if fans thrill at the sight of them at full throttle, rugby’s elites seem happy for the world’s major nations to cherry-pick talent and let these tiny Pacific islands muddle on.

“I think it is time to show muscle. Organise. Mobilise,” says Fuimaono-Sapolu.

“Imagine Leicester without their Polynesians, or Toulon. This is not just a hashtag. There is real strength in mobilising.

“Perhaps players would lose £1000 or more… but there’s a huge intergenerational gain here.”

There’s also a huge potential gain for the international game: since 1987 only four nations have won a world cup — New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England.

Shared resources and tweaked eligibility rules allowing former All Blacks or Wallabies to represent their countries of birth could allow Samoa, Fiji and Tonga to reach their full potential.

Take the Rugby League World Cup — where supercharged Fiji and Tonga teams have stunned the bookmakers to reach the semi-finals.

But there’s another — and perhaps more compelling reason — for rugby nations like England to rally round and help fund Pacific rugby.

Rising seas due to climate change are placing the future of these countries at risk.

The UN’s annual climate summit in Bonn last week heard Fiji needs to spend billions to prepare for an uptick in future storms, rising temperatures and oceans in the coming decades.

A report by the World Bank put the figure required at $4.5 billion, equal to its annual GDP.

Around 30% of the country’s population currently live in risk-prone areas, it added, underlining the need to act fast.

It’s an existential threat that could — one day — mean the flow of Pacific Island stars dries up as their homelands disappear underwater.

If the global game is serious about wanting to invest in its future beyond a few memes and hashtags — it should start by working out how it can help these nations cope with their toughest game yet — and perhaps ensure less money is thrown at those vast flamethrowers that greet players as they run out at Twickenham.

“People here are complaining of climate change, of disasters and it’s hurting,” says Fuimaono-Sapolu.

“It’s a consequence of greed, or corporations exploiting the planet. It’s the same economics of exploitation and greed that is hurting rugby.

“Greed is destroying the planet and in my mind it’s destroying rugby.”



Ed King

Tracking international climate diplomacy since 2010 | Trustee @LewYouTheatre | Also at @sportandclimate