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“World Rugby Trade War, Again” (ed. in FT 9/3/2019)


World Rugby Trade War, Again (ed. in FT 9/3/2019)

When US President Trump recently announced that he was planning to exclude Chinese and EU steel from the lucrative US market through tariffs and other means, the world knew that a trade war was looming.

A trade war is exactly what is happening in the world rugby market which is supposed to be free, fair and competitive- except that the rich rugby playing countries are secretly planning to keep out Pacific Island countries (Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) from a lucrative global rugby competition that will begin in 2022.

I say “rich” not the “best”, because while the World Rugby administrators talk a lot about “selection on merit”, what is clearly far more important are commercial and financial factors.

The facts are that they are planning to include weaker (but richer) rugby playing countries (Italy and Japan) while excluding stronger countries by world ranking (but poorer) such as Fiji (which may yet be included), Georgia, Tonga and Samoa, even though the world’s consumers (rugby fans) want to see them.

It is pure hypocrisy that the rich countries who frequently mouth their alleged concern for the development of the poor countries, refuse to fairly share the economic benefits of the global game with Pacific Island teams who have contributed so massively in recent years, to the internationalization and excitement of rugby union.

This exclusion also gives the lie to the recent declaration by the Australian Prime Minister (Scott Morrison) that Australia and Fiji (and other Pacific Islanders) were part of one big “family”.

Of course, astute but polite Pacific Island leaders know that Morrison was really trying to tell Fiji “please keep China out of the Pacific family”.

But how strange that the Australian Government (and NZ) wastefully throw billions of aid dollars on the Pacific (in silly competition with China), while totally neglecting what could be the far more powerful and least cost mechanisms to bind the Pacific peoples closer to Australia and NZ- such as free and fair access to their international rugby competitions.

Just as they blindly failed when the Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were kept out of the Super Rugby competitions, while distant Japan and Argentina teams were allowed in.

The rich country SANZAR rugby administrators amply demonstrated then, as do World Rugby administrators today, that short term commercial and financial interests were far more important to them than the principles of merit, fair play and free competition, and the development of rugby that the passionate fans are eager for.

While no decisions have apparently been made yet, the very fact that these rich countries are even considering behind closed doors the possible exclusion of the Pacific Island countries suggests that the rugby unions of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, with the support of their governments, must fight to be represented in the administration of World Rugby.

Just as weak trading countries in the world are fighting to have their proper place in the running of World Trade Organization (WTO)  in order to protect their trading interests.

Pacific rugby fans, rugby unions and players organizations (like PRPW, PRP and IRP) might advance their rugby cause further if they treat rugby not just as a sport they love passionately, but also insist that their governments treat rugby as economic trade (jobs and incomes) and geopolitical interests to Pacific Super Powers like Australia and NZ.

The planned World Rugby League

Without any transparent planning made known to the public (typical of arrogant administrators), it has unofficially emerged that rich country World Rugby administrators are in the final stages of deciding on the format for an annual World Rugby League Championship probably involving 12 teams: with their current world ranking in parentheses:

New Zealand (1)

Ireland (2)

Wales (3)

England (4)

South Africa (5)

Australia (6)

Scotland (7)

France (8)

Argentina (10)

Japan (11)

Italy (14)

USA (15).

Now, if merit was the criterion for selection, then the first question must be: why missing from the list are Fiji (ranked 9 in the world) and Georgia (ranked 12 in the world)?

The second question that jumps out is why would World Rugby be even thinking of including Italy and USA although they are well out of the top 12 in world rankings?

The simple answer is: money.

 World Rugby Logic

Public statements made by the CEO of World Rugby (Brett Gosper) and the Chairman of World Rugby (Bill Beaumont) give some indication of the logic behind their planned selection of teams to initially play in this Championship, although there is clear contradiction between merit and money:

Consumer research confirms a structured annual competition would make fans and new audiences more likely to watch, attend and engage with international rugby, exposing the sport to new fans worldwide…. would deliver significantly greater long-term broadcast revenue …. to deliver a model that ensures the best-possible competition and commercial outcomes …. great for players, clubs, fans and unions.” 

     CEO of World Rugby (Gosper) has been quoted participation would be merit-based, based on rankings at an agreed time”.

But clearly, the inclusion of countries like Italy and USA do not satisfy this criterion. Clearly, the “best-possible competition” would not leave out the three Pacific teams Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Clearly the best outcomes for players, clubs, fans and unions must also include those of the Pacific nations.

There is little doubt (and understandable of course for any administrators who have to keep their systems going) that for World Rugby administrators financial and commercial objectives may take precedence over the ruby playing merit of small countries like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, whose domestic markets and revenue generating abilities are understandably small.

So while World Rugby has revealed that no selection has been made yet, they say they will include 2 countries from the emerging rugby nations, I suspect probably including Fiji.

But no mention has been made of Tonga or Georgia which are currently in the top 12 in world ranking or Samoa, which is just outside it even though a world rugby competition without giant killers Samoa, would be that much poorer.

Repeating Super Rugby Unfairness

Rugby fans in the Pacific have long complained about the years of callous exclusion of rugby playing Pacific nations Fiji, Samoa and Tonga from Super Rugby, which went from the original 12 teams to 14, then to 18 and finally back to 15.

Totally disregarding merit, teams from peripheral countries like Japan and Argentina were included while teams from Australia and South Africa were increased (with no qualitative improvement to the competition), and then decreased when the additions were found not be as financially successful as expected. Clearly, the Super Rugby administrators amply demonstrated that they had lack of vision in excluding a joint team from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, who had already proven their merit by beating Super Rugby teams like Warratah and the Reds.

The hypocrisy of these rugby administrators was that everyone knows that all the teams in Super Rugby draw on individual talents from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, bringing great excitement to the game. (Readers should draw up their own list of Pacific Islanders who have played and are currently playing in Super Rugby and imagine what the game would be without them.

So it is encouraging that international Pacific Island rugby players are now organizing to fight this discrimination by the rich countries through the planned World Rugby Championship.

The Pacific Rugby Players Welfare London-based organization (PRPW) headed by former Manu Samoa captain (Dan Leo) This is exactly what happened when they created Super Rugby…. their watchword was – let’s take their players but whatever happens, keep the islands out.”

What these Pacific Rugby representatives should also learn to tell the rich countries is the following economic history lecture:  “How dare you rich countries once again practise the old imperialist exploitation of the poor colonies: you just want our raw materials (good rugby players), but keep out the finished products (rugby teams) through which our poor people can fairly earn higher incomes through more jobs”.

[My accounts of the previous attempts to include Pacific Island teams in Super Rugby go back more than ten years and may be all read in my recently published book The Challenges of Growing the Fiji Economy, in the section on rugby as a source of jobs and incomes.]

The PRWP has joined forces with Pacific Rugby Players (PRP) Chairman Hale T-Pole in “condemning the current proposals before World Rugby and any other format that restricts the Pacific Island’s ability to advance as rugby nations.”   They called on the Pacific national rugby unions to “repel this proposal, before it is too late.”

There is talk of Pacific nations and rugby players boycotting the Rugby World Cup later this year. I suggest that this tactic can be seen as cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The rich countries would only be too pleased not to face the pulverization by Fijians, Samoans and Tongans. Far better for these three countries to go to the World Cup and prove a point, of course, yet again. But  history tells us that no one remembers ten years later that a world competition was not fair because it was boycotted by some nations and individuals.

But it is not just rugby unions who must act but also their governments.

Not just sport but trade

I suggest that the rugby unions of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga call on their respective governments to treat the current World Rugby proposals as a declaration of trade war by the rich countries.

For Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, taking part in the World Rugby Championship can bring enormous benefits not just to their domestic rugby unions and players, but to the wider economies, just as they would have, had they been allowed to be part of Super Rugby.

Of course, home games (alternating between Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) would be absolutely great not for the development of rugby in their home territories throughout better facilities, players and fan base.

But it would also generate jobs and incomes through their tourism industries and airline carriers, as visitors arrive from abroad, not just foreign rugby enthusiasts, but also former nationals who have emigrated abroad.

Exclusion of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga by the rich countries from this global championship would be not just unfairly depriving these poor countries of free, fair and competitive access to a game they love, but also depriving them of widespread economic benefits of trade in sports that they would be working hard for.

Surely this would be better than the rich countries arrogantly pretending to be “donors” giving them allegedly free handouts as “aid” which usually boomerangs back to the donor countries through contracting companies.

Pacific Plan B

Before the Dublin meeting of World Rugby, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga rugby unions might want to discuss a “Plan B”, should the rich countries in World Rugby try to “divide and rule” by including only Fiji only in the World Championship, while leaving out Samoa and Tonga.

I suspect that a combined Fiji, Samoa and Tonga Team (the “Pacific Octopus”) might not only beat the proverbial sh*t out of the rich country teams, but also mount the next challenge on the Super Rugby competition. But will Fiji representatives have the vision not to break ranks with Samoa and Tonga?

As Trump’s US is finding out, trade wars can have very unpleasant outcomes and he has been slowly reversing himself on many of his declared policies.  Let us hope that World Rugby similarly comes to its senses at the Dublin meeting before it does further damage to the global spirit of this game.



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