Politics and corruption within Pacific Island Rugby have often been a concern. Every couple of years when one of the islands play at Twickenham, eyebrows are raised over whether those in charge of the unions have the game’s best interest at heart.
Conversations also arise about the fairness of giving the home side almost all of the gate receipt. Journalists, podcasters, fans and seemingly the whole of rugby Twitter claim something ‘has to change’, but it never does. Until now.
Just days before Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal & Pacific Rugby was released, we were given access to a preview of the hour long documentary, looking at the issues. It’s presented and co-produced by former Samoa international Dan Leo.
Leo famously spoke out against the Samoan Rugby Union (SRU) in 2014 after documents were released showing board members were taking huge bonuses. Meanwhile, players were only getting paid a few hundred pounds for an international match. After speaking out, Leo was dropped by Samoa and never played for his country again.
It is important to say that the documentary is not a balanced account for both sides. It approaches the issues from a particular viewpoint, but as the piece never tries to pretend that it is impartial, this never feels like an issue.
The film starts at a hundred miles an hour, with scandal after scandal thrown at you so quickly that you almost don’t have time to pick your jaw up off the floor between them. These scandals aren’t just finance related; some are as serious as blackmailing claims and even a manslaughter conviction, all within the hierarchy of the Pacific Island unions.
Rugby within the Pacific Islands is a very complex love affair. The passion for the game is unrivalled (even by New Zealand), but rugby also provides a lifeline for many. Rugby expats send more than £300 million back to the islands, and often whole villages rely on one player playing abroad to send money home.
Rugby is also crucial to each economy, contributing up to 20% of each nation’s GDP, and because of this the chair of each union is also the Prime Minister of each country. This creates unclarity as to where rugby ends and government begins, while ensuring that the head of each union is not held accountable.
Leo spends the first half of the film talking to those involved or previously involved in island rugby. The stories he’s told feel more suited to a fictional drama rather than a documentary film. Threats are frequently implied, while others refuse to speak ill of their chair/Prime Minister because “he can make you disappear.”
The film’s path then takes a slight turn away from each union’s possible internal corruption, and instead focuses on World Rugby. Leo highlights the unfairness of the current voting model at board level, which gives the ten ‘Tier One nations’ 60% of the votes. This model means that very little changes in World Rugby unless the Tier One nations support it.
The current Tongan Rugby Union Offices consists of two men and two laptops, while the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and other Tier One unions regularly turned over hundreds of millions pre-COVID.
There have been calls to change the distribution of gate receipts at internationals, giving the away team 10% of the money, rather than the current model where the home team keeps all of it. This would help transform Pacific Island rugby’s finances and would see players getting paid more, while corruption within the unions could easily be called out.
The documentary culminates with two big interviews: one with Samoan Prime Minister and Head of the SRU, Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi; the other with World Rugby CEO, Brett Gosper.
The interview with Tuilaepa is one of the first real shortcomings of the film. It had been built up throughout but Leo didn’t effectively address the corruption claims. Instead, he allows Tuilaepa to shift the blame on to World Rugby. This comes as a shock given his bullish nature towards Tuilaepa during the film.
It raises questions around whether Leo himself, despite being 6’6” and 112kg, felt threatened by the Prime Minister and didn’t want to endanger his family, who still live on the island.
Had this been the end of the film, it would have been a major anti-climax, but Gosper’s interview redeems things. The World Rugby CEO’s sidestepping of most questions turns the initial feelings of shock when watching the film, to ones of sadness.
There is an evident refusal to claim any responsibility for the issues within Pacific Island Rugby, and it is even more evident that World Rugby have no intention of trying to address it.
The Pacific Islanders are stalwarts of the game, and the allowance of the players to be exploited by their unions and others shows that rugby’s supposed values are nothing more than lip service.
Despite the damming interview, there is still an incomplete feeling when the film ends. It is well shot, but for a project that started four years ago, something more had been expected.
However as credits rolled, the small size of the production team was surprising, and this may go some way to explaining that ‘one percent of quality’ that was missing.
Regardless of this, ‘Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal & Pacific Rugby’ is still an impressive documentary that addresses issues that needed addressing. Leo and those that made the film just want to see Pacific Island players being treated fairly. Hopefully this is the start of that change.
Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal & Pacific Rugby is released today (Tuesday 17 November) on Amazon Prime Video and Vimeo.