Pacific Rugby Players chairman Hale T-Pole calls out New Zealand Rugby

AUCKLAND, 18 FEBRUARY 2020 (STUFF NZ) – Pacific Rugby Players chairman Hale T-Pole has a blunt message to New Zealand rugby bosses who blame the northern hemisphere for the struggles of island rugby: take a hard look in the mirror first.

T-Pole and others have watched on as NZ Rugby chairman Brent Impey and former CEO Steve Tew have tried to lay the blame for the plight of PI rugby at the door of the Home Nations; first, over the failed ‘World League’ project; and second, the stalled push to allow PI players to become eligible for their nations after representing test sides such as the All Blacks.

That narrative misrepresents what PI players really want: to play their club rugby in southern hemisphere competitions so they don’t have to go overseas, where they are often exploited and then placed under huge pressure not to represent the Pacific Islands in test rugby.

“It’s something that New Zealand Rugby has to look at to help us, because I caught up with Brent Impey and we always hear New Zealand Rugby say, ‘We’ve got to make changes for the Pacific Islands,’ but I haven’t seen any changes,” T-Pole told Stuff.

“I’ve gone back to them and asked them to walk the talk.”

T-Pole, the former Tonga, Highlanders, Southland and Harbour Hawks loose forward, is someone who walks to talk.

As PRP chairman he looks after PI players all over the globe and before his meeting with Stuff he was catching up with Dunedin-based All Blacks physio Pete Gallagher for help with system that would help monitor the wellbeing of players overseas.

In December, he won the NZRPA’s Kirk Award with with former Highlanders team-mate Josh Blackie, in recognition of his contribution on behalf of professional players

And it explains to Stuff why he got into the player advocacy business in the first place, even though it puts the father of two boys under significant time pressure.

New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey has been accused of only talking a good game when it comes to Pacific Island rugby.

“I got banned from playing for Tonga for two years for leading a strike [he missed the 2011 World Cup],” he said. “I do what I do now because I don’t want other players to go through the s..t that I had to.”

But after fruitlessly banging on the doors of the intensely political World Rugby organisation over the eligibility issue, T-Pole and fellow the Pacific Rugby Players founder Seilala Mapusua have had something of a lightbulb moment.

“It was actually ‘Lala’ [Mapusua] who said, ‘Why are always going to World Rugby, blaming World Rugby when we should be going to New Zealand [Rugby]’?”

Their objectives are simple. After decades in which Pacific Island rugby has been neglected by Sanzaar, T-Pole wants New Zealand Rugby to truly open its doors to Pacific Island players by allowing more of them to play at Super Rugby level and/or create a competition for them.

“We want our players here,” said T-Pole, noting the World League concept would have put PI players at conflict with their Europe-based clubs. “First year, second year of Super Rugby, when you’re at that level, to come and play for us.

“There’s a risk there [currently], because you might get cut from New Zealand rugby.

“We’ve gone to New Zealand Rugby and approached them and said, ‘This could be part of you helping out the Pacific Islands’.

“In Super Rugby, you’re allowed three non-New Zealand players. Our players then think, ‘I’m playing my second year of Super Rugby, and I kind of know I’m not going to make the All Blacks, but I could be a weapon for Samoa’.

“But they think, oh s..t, I can’t play for Samoa now because I’ll be into that extra spot.

“So what we’ve proposed to New Zealand rugby is: Don’t count us as part of those spots. This can be you helping the Pacific Islands. That will keep our players here.”

There are multiple players in that situation who never declare for the island nations, contributing to the shameful fact that no Pacific Island nationĀ  made it to the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

T-Pole knows that the PI nations often don’t help themselves (“We’ve got our own issues with governance”) but still, they have been fighting on the world stage with one hand tied behind their backs.

Pacific Rugby Players chairman Hale T-Pole in Dunedin. ‘I do what I do now because I don’t want other players to go through the s–t that I had to.’

“Let’s say Johnny, who is 22 years-old, he’s not going to make the All Blacks but he’ll be a valuable asset for Fiji,” T-Pole said.

“We want him to stay here and develop here but play for Fiji. Let them play. Stay in the system here because it’s very aligned with Tonga. Fiji, Samoa.

“It’s easier to get them into camp, run a one week camp during the season, like the All Blacks and Australia do.”

The other area that grates with T-Pole is the lack of competition pathways in New Zealand.

Even though the All Blacks have benefited immensely from the likes of Fijians Joe Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivavatu and Sevu Reece, when it came to finding a competition for the Fijian Drua side, they had to join Australia’s National Rugby Championship.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. T-Pole finds new NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson much easier to deal with than his predecessor, Tew. In discussions, at least, Robinson has shown a greater desire to get things done.

T-Pole also has a strong ally in NZRPA boss Rob Nichol, who is his conduit to SANZAAR.

Of course, NZ Rugby would have to invest some money in PI players to get these changes through. That’s always the stumbling block but there is growing evidence that SANZAAR nations’ long neglect of the islands might be coming back to bite them commercially.

Super Rugby is stale. In fact, one of the few evenings that provided genuine electricity last year was the Chiefs v Crusaders match in Suva, where the Fijian crowd showed what real passion looks like.

“It’s s..t,” T-Pole said of Super Rugby. “I’m not going to the stadium [Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin], unless someone invites you to a box and even then it’s about eating and talking and only popping your head up to look at the game now and again.

“I’ve got better things to do with my kids on a Saturday night.”

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