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The RUGBY WORLD CUP: not a level playing field [The Fiji Times, 22 October 1999]



  ForFiji, the 1999 Rugby World Cup has come and gone.


Fiji did not make it to the quarterfinals, and yes, winning is not everything.  But a bitter taste remains, and not just because of the one-eyed refereeing.


What really hurts is the financial unfairness and callousness of the rugby playing Big Nations, to the rugby needs of the small countries.  They refuse to share the World Cup profits.


Small countries must go to the World Cup (or it would not be a “World” Cup, would it?), but they don’t care what conditions we play under, or what it costs us to go to the World Cup.   We can take the crumbs that fall from their table, but only after they have filled their bellies.


No level playing field


  Experts in the world of business and international trade love to use the term “level playing field” when describing the ideal free market situation.  If all economic agents competed fairly, without unfair advantages (such as subsidies), or restrictions (such as excessive import duties), the resulting prices and resource allocation would be great for all.   Amen.


But pragmatists know that there is no morality or fairness in the business world, no level playing field.  Monopolists and those with market power, because of wealth, size or technology, will drive weaker competitors to the wall, and exploit consumers to the hilt, if they can, and for as long as they can.


Powerful trading nations will bend weaker developing nations to their will, with or without the help of the WTO. In the Darwinian business world, the laggards and losers languish, decay and die, with no tears shed by the winners.


And it seems that the rugby-playing Big Nations want to impose the same harsh reality on the small countries.  But look at typical rugby conditions inFiji,Western Samoa orTonga.


Poor Pacific conditions


  Most of the players are amateurs, practising in their leisure hours after a day of hard, often physical work.They train and play in extremely primitive conditions.   The grounds are either rock hard, bumpy and bare of grass, or wet and swampy, like rice paddies.


The coaches may be dedicated, but part-time, with little professional training, and certainly with little equipment or resources to ensure proper all-round training.  There are no facilities or expertise for proper treatment of common rugby injuries.  The players usually camp under primitive conditions, with poor quality food (cassava, tin-fish and tea) and few creature comforts.


The small size of their business community also means that there are no lucrative financial sponsorships, except from a small number of companies who get tired of being called upon, over and over.  The rugby playing and supporting populations inFiji,Western Samoa andTongaare tiny and financially poor.


And national rugby organisations are financially too weak to enable decent pay for the top rugby players, managers or coaches.  While rugby players also have families to look after, there are few financial incentives for good players to remain playing for their country, and their only hope is to make it internationally.


Fiji andWestern Samoa will never see a World Cup being played in their countries.   They will always be travelling to Europe orSouth Africa or, if they are lucky, toAustraliaor NZ.  They will always have great difficulty in paying the bills for training, travel, accommodation and food.


And yet they are denied their proper share of the World Cup takings.


  Contrast these primitive and backward conditions with those faced by the players in the NZ, Australian and British national teams and their top clubs.


In the rich countries?


  Governments pour in large sums of money from primary school upwards.  Multinationals like Nike and Addidas channel millions in sponsorship deals, as also do multinational companies which control the media rights to the international games.  Spectators are plentiful and affluent enough to afford high ticket prices.


Grounds are immaculate, stadiums massive, and players have access to the latest in gym technology, training, coaching, physiotherapy and medical rehabilitation.  Five star hotels with swimming pools and spas, are the order of the day, as are nutritionally crafted meals.


There are excellent remuneration packages for the managers, coaches, and players, unimaginable inFiji.


How can anyone say that Fiji plays Australia or New Zealand  on a “level playing field“?   So it is nothing short of a miracle thatFiji gave a drubbing toFrance and a fright toEngland.


The World Cup needs Fiji. Samoa and Tonga


  Indeed, the Big Nations need countries likeFiji andWestern Samoato participate in order to call the Championships a “World Cup”, so that television rights can be more marketable internationally, and before they can crow and crown themselves as “world champions”.


So why won’t the Big Nations give a fair share of the profits toFiji(and other small countries)?


A colonial left-over?


  Is this unfairness a colonial leftover?  For most of this century, the rugby playing populations of England,Scotland,Wales,France,Australia,New Zealand andSouth Africadid not regularly play tests with the smaller countries.


The mainly black Fijian rugby team was an entertaining aberration in this mainly white world,  providing interesting media copy with their bare feet, bushy hair, fearsome physiques, and open, exuberant rugby. And our teams suitably lost  in the rare Tests thrown our way, with cricket scores that massaged the Big Nation egos. Tut tut, went the rugby pundits then.


But not any more.


A courageous Fiji team team


  With the help of a hard-nosed coach and the presence of internationally experienced players, we have a rugby team that, for the first time, has taken the battle to the Big Nations.


There have been disciplined rucks, mauls, scrums, stolen lineouts,  multiple phase plays.  Not to mention bone-crushing, kidney smashing, and teeth-jarring tackling, not a renowned feature of previousFijiteams.  The free exuberant running is still there, but certainly not wildly over-done, as previously.


Under the onslaught of theFijimen, the French rooster was plucked, stopped crowing, and was about to croak.  In the other game, the thorns were stripped, and the petals almost wilted, on a shaken English rose that could not believe it was still winning at half time.


But unfortunately, the Big Nation referees ruled the roost (none of ours were there). Critical tries against France (one scored and one penalty try) were denied by a referee’s blinkers.   Big Nation forward passes on the way to their tries were somehow missed.


Referees have considerable discretion in how they interpret the “rules of the game” and can sometimes decide who wins.  History only remembers the final result, not the referees’ blunders or blinkers, and no result is ever changed after the game.


Rugby is also trade, not just sport


  It is time that Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga devoted several of their plentiful Ausaid and NZODA scholarships to train their own internationally qualified and certified referees, who can make their presence felt in the “international referees old boys club”, and whose international experience can then filter down to the local levels.


Fiji must treat its international sporting efforts in the same way that it treats its international trading arrangements.


With dozens of Fijians playing overseas, rugby is an important export industry forFiji.  A hundred citizens playing rugby overseas, easily earn $10 millions a year forFiji.


What also of the annual Super Twelve series, from whichFiji,Western Samoa andTongahave been callously excluded?   Don’t we deserve at least one combined team, perhaps?


Surely there is excellent value in using rugby for advertisingFiji for tourism.  Hundreds of millions of people watched internationally, every time thatFijiplayed in the World Cup.


What would be the monetary advertising value to the tourism industry or interests, if everyFiji jersey had on the back, “DenerauFiji” or “Air Pacific,Fiji”?  Could the tourism industry be a key source of funds for rugby?


What would be the effect in our tourism markets if the “home game” for our combined team in the Super Twelve series, could be alternated betweenSuva,Apia and Tongatapu, against teams fromAustralia, NZ andSouth Africa.  Imagine the matches being televised live in all the home countries, with advertisements of tourism destinations during the advertising breaks?


Just as with the WTO,Lomeand Sparteca, our Governments must also increase pressure for changes to the “financial rules” of international rugby, for a fairer share of the rugby cake, which our rugby teams have helped to bake.


It is time that the Governments of Fiji andWestern Samoa called a meeting of the small nations (perhaps assisted by the Forum Secretariat), form a “cartel”, and begin serious “sporting trade discussions” withAustralia,New Zealand andSouth Africa.


There must at least be “free entry” of our rugby teams to the Super Twelve series, and a proper sharing of benefits, so that rugby can also develop in the islands and compete on more even terms with the Big Nations.


We need a genuine “level playing field” for our rugby.

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