The topic of player release has been a persistent and troublesome issue for international rugby teams since the advent of professionalism. Almost all international teams have had disputes with clubs to one extent or another over the release of their players for international rugby matches.
A number of agreements on access to players between international sides and their top domestic divisions have resulted in this issue falling from the limelight in recent years, but it has resurfaced this season as one of the more pressing issues facing the rugby world. The potential withholding of French-based players from the beginning of the Lions tour to Australia next year was the first to make the headlines, whilst the much more recent news that three Fijians were allegedly paid by their club to not represent Fiji at the 2011 World Cup is even more concerning.
Since the announcement from many French clubs that they would be unwilling to release players selected for the Lions if the clubs themselves were involved in the Top 14 final, it has emerged that, according to IRB regulations, Lions coach Warren Gatland would be able to force through player releases if he so desired. Unfortunately for Fiji, and other Pacific Island teams Samoa and Tonga, they will struggle to enjoy the same luxuries as Gatland.
The more disturbing issue of players potentially being paid bonuses to not represent their national team is one which needs to be dealt with as soon as possible by the IRB. The allegations, against French club side Racing Metro, were made by Simon Mannix, who was backs coach for the club at the time. Sireli Bobo and Jone Qovu, two of the players involved, cited personal reasons for their withdrawal from the Fijian side, and Josh Matavesi, the third individual, cited club commitments. Mannix claimed that these players were paid bonuses for their withdrawals. Whilst the IRB cannot take any action until a formal complaint is made, the Fijian Rugby Union is currently contemplating whether or not to take further action.
The FRU have, however, made a formal complaint over lock Qovu’s absence from their current international squad. The second row, who still plays for Racing Metro, withdrew from the Fijian squad with an injury last month and remained with his club. A subsequent appearance in the Top 14 on October 27th has led to Fijian coach Inoke Male criticising European clubs for hampering his sides’ chances on the international arena.
Many Pacific Island players choose to play their rugby in New Zealand, Australia and Europe in order to provide money for their families, and are often persuaded to then represent their adopted nations rather than the country they were born in. This culminates in a significant dilution of what was already a limited player pool. Any further limitations imposed upon these international teams by clubs refusing to release their Pacific Islands players has to be dealt with immediately.
One positive to come out of all of this however is the potential formation of a Pacific Islands Rugby Players’ Association, with help from both the Welsh and New Zealand Rugby Players’ Associations already being offered. The prospective group, spearheaded by Deacon Manu, Hale T-Pole and Mahonri Schwalger, would try to help players who want to represent their home nation, without them having to fear for the loss of their livelihood, by giving them a voice and taking their case to the IRB.
Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are nations with a rugby history as rich as any, and refusing to release players for international duty seems to fly in the face of all the ideals we hold in the game of rugby union. These nations already have to contend with a lack of home games against tier one opposition and the continued loss of players to other international teams. It is therefore unfair to ask them to suffer further hindrances that other, wealthier, rugby unions do not have to tolerate.
Hopefully in the aftermath of these Autumn Internationals and the controversies that have arisen, we will see a more proactive approach from the IRB in regards to player release for the Pacific Islands, ideally in conjunction with the potential Pacific Islands Rugby Players’ Association.
By Alex Shaw