Samoa rugby fans pledge funds for cash-strapped nation
Samoa rugby fans have rallied to the aid of their team after warnings that the Samoa Rugby Union is insolvent and players may go unpaid for tests in Europe this month.
A combined radio and telethon in Samoa on Wednesday raised 354,000 Tala ($150,000) in a nation which has a population of less than 200,000 and an average annual household income of around $15,000.
The national appeal followed a dire warning from Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi that the Samoa Rugby Union is unable to meet its debts or pay player wages.
Samoa’s tests against Scotland on Saturday and England and Romania over the following two weeks will go ahead as scheduled.
The Samoa players and coach Fuimaono Timitaea Tafua are likely to be fully paid following the fundraising drive. The England Rugby Union has also indicated it will make a goodwill payment of 75,000 pounds (almost $100,000) to Samoa to help meet players’ match fees.
England’s Rugby Football Union offered a similar “goodwill” amount to Fiji ahead of a test at Twickenham last year from which it received an estimated 10 million pounds (US$13.1 million), despite being under no obligation to share with the visiting team. Rugby’s revenue-sharing system, which allows major nations such as England to retain all revenues from home matches, has been strongly criticized by Samoa and other Pacific Island nations.
Because those nations rarely play at home and generate little income when they do — a result of small stadiums and necessarily low ticket prices, lack of broadcasting rights and consequent sponsorship — there is a significant wealth gap between rugby’s richest and poorest national unions.
Samoa has been known in the past for its ability to compete on the field with top-tier nations: it qualified for every Rugby World Cup bar the first in 1987, beating Wales in pool play in 1991. But it has been eliminated in the pool stages of every Cup since 2003 and its individual test results in recent years have been poor.
In opening the radiothon on Wednesday, the prime minister said he understood fans are disappointed with the team’s recent form but added that for financial and other reasons Samoa increasingly struggles to compete at test level.
Almost all of its top players are based in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain or Europe and their availability for test matches is often constrained by the demands of their clubs. At the same time many young Samoan players make themselves available to represent the All Blacks, England or other teams because the financial rewards are much greater.
“Compared to powerful and resourceful rugby nations with their financial capacities, complemented by millions of players to select for their national sides, Samoa’s meager population of a little over 180,000 cannot compete,” Tuilaepa said.
“On that note, I commend our overseas-based players who have put country before money by committing to play and represent Samoa not only in rugby, but in rugby league and other sports disciplines.”
Tuilaepa said despite current financial problems the Samoa union was pressing ahead with plans to increase payments to players, and he called on Samoans to put aside past animosities to support the national team.
World Rugby replied to implied criticism of its own commitment to Samoan rugby by confirming that it meets all costs of player insurance, air travel and training camps for the European tour through its 1.5 million pound ($2 million) contribution to the SRU high-performance program.
Former Samoa players have called for a fairer deal for the Island nation.
Bryan Williams, who played 38 tests for New Zealand but who coached Samoa and whose two sons have played for the Samaon team, told Radio New Zealand he is “distraught” at Samoa’s financial position.
He said Samoa was handicapped by a lack of exposure to top rugby and called for the island nation to be included in SANZAAR competitions such as Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.
Former Samoa player Daniel Leo, who heads the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare organization, described the financial revelations “a dark day for world rugby.”