Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Tonga, World Rugby’s Top Tier Problem.

Posted on 9 November 2021 by Piers Dunham

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Tonga were comprehensively beaten 69-3 by England at Twickenham on Saturday. The game was Tonga’s fourth this calendar year, in which they have now conceded a cumulative 273 points.

This is poor for a team competing at the elite level which then begs the question, are Tonga simply not good enough? Or do the problems run much deeper?

Irregular Fixtures

Before July of this year, Tonga had not played a game since the World Cup in late 2019. Although the pandemic has inevitably gotten in the way of some fixtures, two years is far too long for a professional international side not to play.

No game in almost two years would leave any team struggling to put together a cohesive performance. This is amplified hugely in the game of rugby, where so much relies on meticulous structure and disciplined execution of a gameplan.

Tonga are currently placed in World Rugby’s tier 2 classification which means by definition they are seen as a second-rate team.

Tier 2 teams rarely play tier 1 teams, like England and New Zealand, except during World Cups and occasionally during international friendly series.

Outside of the 2019 World Cup Tonga have played a tier 1 team just six times since 2017, losing every fixture. They are clearly a class below these tier 1 sides, but how are they supposed to compete when they play against them so infrequently?

World Rugby fail nations like Tonga in their hesitancy to schedule frequent matches between tier 1 and tier 2 nations.

Tonga will always lose to England simply because they have very little experience of the intensities and skillsets required to play at the top tier level.

However, the blame does not lie solely with World Rugby.

Tier 1 Teams Also to Blame

Tier 1 teams also need to do more in helping level the playing field. This could be done in several ways, such as allocating a bigger percentage of match takings to these teams, or even something as simple as choosing the Pacific Islands as a destination for a summer tour.

England have played in Fiji just twice in their long history, while they have never played in neither Tonga nor Samoa.

A tour to the Pacific Islands would be a hugely popular and successful way to develop rugby in these countries.

It would not only allow for the Pacific Island payers to attain knowledge and experience of playing against a world class side, but it would inspire a new generation of rugby players, seeing their team play against the world’s best right on their doorstep.

But the RFU claim that it is not economically viable to do so. However, there is much more to rugby than monetary greed.

If Tonga alongside the other tier 2 nations cannot play against the world’s best frequently then they will never be able to improve.

Poaching of Players a Problem

It is estimated that as of 2019, 20% of all the world’s professional rugby players come from Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. That is a staggering statistic considering the combined population of these nations is under 1.5million.

Why then if these nations produce so many professional rugby players, are they struggling to compete with tier 1 teams?

The answer is simple. They are lured away from the Pacific Islands by tier 1 countries at a young age. Once they have lived in their new adopted country for over five years, they are able to change their allegiance which most players do, and therefore become ineligible to play for their home country.

There are hundreds of examples of this, such as the Vunipola brothers and their cousin Taulupe Faletau who now represent England and Wales respectively.

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In ex-Samoan international Dan Leo’s documentary ‘Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal & Pacific Rugby’, one Samoan rugby coach revealed that a New Zealand school enquired about one of his players who was just 13 years-old.

This is far too young for a player to have to decide about his and his families’ future.

However, many of these young Pacific Island players feel as though they have no choice but to relocate. They often come from poor families who have very little money. The offer of relocating to a richer country and the promise of a comprehensive education is too good to turn down.

But in doing so, their country loses yet another promising rugby talent to a tier 1 team.

Another Samoan in Leo’s documentary even compares the allurement of young Pacific Island players as: “Not far different from a slave ship”. And that every year the best 40 kids are taken out of Tonga.

This shows just how complex the problems of Tongan rugby are and how deep they run. How are they expected to compete or develop when their best talents are taken from them every year?

Some of the best players in world rugby are originally from Tonga. Imagine if they were able to keep these players. But as Dan Leo points out on Twitter; “Sadly it seems we are only ever destined to ‘imagine’”.

Although Pacific rugby federations have their own problems of corruption and greed, more needs to be done by World Rugby to ensure that this poaching of the best Pacific Island talent does not continue.

World Rugby Not Doing Enough 

Since 2009 World Rugby have pushed the importance of their values which they say are: “the defining character-building characteristics of rugby”.

These values are: “Integrity, Passion, Solidarity, Discipline and Respect”.

Where is the ‘solidarity’ in the RFU’s refusal to tour the Pacific Islands?

Where is the ‘integrity’ of tier 1 nations prioritising money over the improvement and development of the game?

Where is the ‘respect’ to nations like Tonga who are without the financial riches of the RFU and have their most promising young talents taken from them every year?

If we are to see a fairer and more developed game, World Rugby alongside the tier 1 nations must do more to help tier 2 sides like Tonga from being thrown to the wayside.

If things continue in the same way they are now, then I fear for the survival of Pacific Island rugby.