Sunday, 13 July 2014

The truth of just how wrong the old All Blacks "poaching" myth is

imageFor years and years, the myth of New Zealand "pillaging" the Pacific Islands has continually persisted. However when analysed further it is miles from the real truth.

For some reason some like to believe (particularly British journalists keen to have a dig at the All Blacks) "pillage" the Islands of talent. The reality is that is simply just so far off reality it's incredible the myth has survived so long and keeps getting churned out.
Part of it comes from an ignorance that New Zealand is a very multi-cultural nation now, and that a man of Samoan heritage or birth is automatically must be a "poach". But let's look at some facts.

In the 2006 census, 131,000 New Zealand identified themselves as being of Samoan ethnicity (not all that far off the actual population of Samoa itself 179,000), and 51,000 of them were born in Samoa meaning a majority now are either second or third generation after migration to New Zealand became prominent in the 1950's.

Now many athletes well suited to rugby happen to also be of Samoan ethnicity, so naturally in a rugby nation like New Zealand, many of these players will find their way into the system. Examples of NZ born players of Samoan heritage include Julian Savea, Ma'a Nonu (born in Wellington), Michael Jones, Frank Bunce, Bryan Williams, Pat Lam (born in Auckland), Tana Umaga (born in Lower Hutt).
L-R: Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko
and Jerome Kaino. Moved to New
Zealand aged 2, 5 and 4 respectively.

Then there are players who were born in Samoa but whose parents immigrated to Samoa at a young age. Examples of these players include Mils Muliaina (moved aged 2), Jerome Kaino, Jerry Collins, Inga Tuigamala (moved aged 4), Rodney So'oialo (moved aged 6), Isaia Toeava (moved aged 7).

It is not actually too dissimilar to African born players such as Abdel Benazzi (Morocco), Serge Betsen (Cameroon), Thierry Dusautoir (Côte d'Ivoire), Yannick Nyanga (Zaire), Sofiane Guitoune (Algeria) or playing for France, or Victor Ubogu or Steve Ojomoh (Nigeria) playing for England. Funnily enough none of those cases have either of them been accused of "poaching". That's because they aren't, and neither are any of those Samoan/New Zealanders who went onto to play for the All Blacks.
Project player Bundee Aki

And it's these players that represent the majority of Samoan All Blacks, all of whom could legitimately say they are New Zealanders of Samoan descent and are equally entitled to represent either nation. No rational person can compare someone who immigrated to New Zealand aged 4 like Jerome Kaino playing for the All Blacks, to the "project players" scheme that for instance targeted Jared Payne or Bundee Aki aged 25 and 24 to cynically take advantage of the 3 year residency rule having paid no investment towards his development as a youngster.

Only 1 All Black (Alama Ieremia) out of 1133 was born in Samoa and spent none of their education years in New Zealand with his last school being in Apia, and that just sums up the warped idea of New Zealand poaching that exists. However, that's not to say the All Blacks have never fielded Islanders who came over by other means than immigrating with their parents.

There have been instances of talents moving from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand aged 15/16/17 on rugby scholarships (which should also be noted is nothing to do with NZRU policy). These include Sitiveni Sivivatu (Fiji), Malakai Fekitoa (Tonga), Casey Laulala and Sosene Anesi (Samoa).

This looks a lot more like poaching and appears to be just represent cynically picking top teenage talent from the Islands, however it is far more complicated than that and needs to be seen on a more personal level and from a wider perspective. The mistake journalists make is only noting the rugby scholarships that make the All Blacks, which only actually represents about 5 of the 32 Island born All Blacks in history.

As Quade Cooper (a recipient of a rugby scholarship himself) explained in 2011, just like many Samoans he was not from a wealthy background and his family would never have been able to afford private education had his prowess at rugby not got him there. Along with rugby he was then able to go to a good school and get a good education to help him in his post rugby career, and as he notes, this is true of the Samoans there as well.
Brook Toomalatai moved to
New Zealand to achieve both
academic and rugby success

Cooper was talking about Australia but the same applies to New Zealand as well. For the individuals, the vast majority of whom won't become All Blacks maybe not even pro rugby players, they are benefiting on a personal level. As Brook Toomalatai (son of former Samoan international of the 1980's Paepae Stan) stated when he moved to New Zealand aged 16, on top of rugby he also wanted to study to become a lawyer and was there for an opportunity to also achieve academic success.

Then there is the rugby point. It is actually many of these players ambition to get a rugby scholarship, as Brian Lima's 16 year old son referenced of achieving his "dream" of a rugby scholarship in Hamilton. Recently newly capped All Black Malakai Fekitoa wasn't even scouted, he personally asked Wesley College for a scholarship.

There is no question whatsoever that New Zealand offers one of the most successful development systems in the world for rugby. Having eligible players going through this system and having the coaching and facilities they would not have back in Samoa is highly beneficial to their development, and that's on top of the academic benefits.

As Toomalatai puts it "you learn a lot more rugby here than you would in Samoa". In fact the Samoan Rugby Union themselves has actually in the past encouraged scholarships, forming partnerships with colleges such as St Thomas in Canterbury in 2011 for them. "It's sweet and good news for us, especially at this time we are pushing our children's education" said the Samoan Rugby Union development director Lilomaiava Taufusi Salesa.
SRU development director
Lilomaiava Taufasi Salesa
described a partnership for
scholarships as "sweet and
good news for us".

In addition to the coaching and facilities, going to New Zealand also offers a simpler pathway into the professional game in New Zealand for player to make a living from it, unlike in Samoa where the domestic scene is amateur.

So the scholarships are 1) beneficial to the individual who gets a good education and pathway to make a living as a professional rugby player, and 2) the individual gets better facilities and coaching for development in the leader worldwide of developing talent at an age where it is most crucial in deciding who makes it at the pro level and who doesn't.

Considering that the amount of ethnic Samoans in New Zealand was 73% of the overall population of Samoa in 2006, it means a large amount of Samoa's eligible base will also likely be in New Zealand and a very large quantity of them have gone through the best rugby development system on the globe.

The fact so many Samoan eligible players, either who New Zealand born and of Samoan heritage, Samoan born and moved to New Zealand young, or the few who get scholarships as teenagers are going through this system and getting these pathways to the pro game is also hugely beneficial to the Samoan national team.

Admittedly, New Zealand are always going to get first pick of these players. They have paid for and helped develop them as rugby players, offer more fame and money and many (of the first two categories mentioned) have lived most of their lives in New Zealand are just as Kiwi as they are Samoan. In fact in 2001, a report mentioned that 36% of those of Samoan ethnicity in New Zealand could no longer speak Samoan.

But the vast majority of them won't go on to become All Blacks; and many of them are left eligible to represent Samoa at international level which they are of course entitled to. As such the player selection base in Samoa is largely expanded when you take eligible players in New Zealand into account, with many having gone through a world leading system for development and found pathways to reach professional rugby.

Over half of Samoa's 30 man 2011 World Cup squad were born in New Zealand, and it’s likely more than that went through the New Zealand education system, such as George Pisi who moved there aged 3 or Seilala Mapusua who moved there aged 4. 9 of the starting XV that trampled over Italy 39-10 last year were also born in New Zealand. These include players instrumental behind their success such as of Kahn Fotuali'i, Paul Williams, the Johnston brothers (all born in Auckland), Daniel Leo (born in Palmerston North), Ti'i Paulo (born in Christchurch), Jack Lam (born in Hamilton), Kane Thompson (born in Wellington).
Alapati Leiua left Samoa aged
16 on a rugby scholarship, but
committed himself to the
national team in 2013, scoring
a try in the crushing of Italy.

If the All Blacks had come calling first then likely all those New Zealand born players would have represented their nation of birth, as would have probably others who moved there young. But the fact, it is through those players from the New Zealand rugby system which has had a huge influence on the success of the Samoan team, and they would not be near the levels they are at right now without it.

For every player they may lose on a scholarship (which really has been only been about 3 go onto become full All Blacks), they gain dozens more who in return develop better players than they would have in Samoa from professional coaching. An instance of this occurred recently, with Alapati Leiua who left Samoa aged 16 on a scholarship but committed to his home country last year. Past instances include Loki Crichton, George Stowers or Zak Taulafo. Likewise Brook Toomalatai who was referenced earlier also ended up representing Samoa U20's last year, not New Zealand.

A lot of this is based on saying that the New Zealand system has many advantages to the Samoan system. And how can this be backed up with numbers? Well looking at this year's Samoan U20 squad gives a good indication. Of their 28 man squad, 21 were based in New Zealand, 3 in Australia and only 4 in Samoa. Having just 4 of your U20 squad go involved with your youth system is not reflective of a system as that is anywhere near as effective as New Zealand's, which of course is only expected given the differences in resources between the nations.

Fact is, a larger proportion of ethnic Samoan players reach the professional level through the New Zealand system than the Samoan one. Remove the players who went through the New Zealand system and the standard of the half backs pairing drops from Kahn Fotuali'i (born and educated in Auckland) and Tusi Pisi (moved young and educated in Auckland) to Vavao Afemai and Patrick Fa'apale who started for the Samoa in the 33-14 defeat to Japan.

And before anyone says that U20 stat is merely because New Zealand has taken all those top talent, that simply isn't true. The squad is just like the senior team, and includes eligible talent from New Zealand who don't make the Baby All Blacks team but with a little more freedom as U20's don't lock players.

As up until this year when they changed policy, New Zealand only selecting from talent in the final eligible year of selection meant that Samoa were able to select Steven Luatua or Tonga pick Charles Piutau, both Auckland born and went onto to represent the New Zealand U20's and then senior team. Recent Australian debutant Will Skelton, also Auckland born but who moved to Sydney aged 10, also represented Samoa U20 via parentage.

It should be noted many of those players only played U20 as it doesn't lock them to one nation, if it did then they almost certainly would have held off playing for them the Pacific Islanders U20 sides would have been without a dozen players.

The junior situation was actually similar to the old days at senior level where players like Michael Jones got capped by Samoa first as a youngster through his mother, before going onto become a legendary All Black. Which brings us neatly onto another point, and why the journalists who accuse New Zealand (the nation who has developed a lot of their talent) of holding Samoa back are looking at a completely wrong target. Samoa does miss out on eligible talent whose eligibility gets locked after they represent the All Blacks, Junior All Blacks or 7's team even when they are no longer selected.

For instance take Clermont number 8 Fritz Lee, Toulon wing David Smith or Chiefs full back Tim Nanai-Williams. All had brief 7's careers with the All Blacks which prevented them from playing for Samoa for good (until a loophole recently became available thanks to the Olympics which could change this).

In the past that wouldn't have happened. 8 players in rugby history played for both Samoa and the All Blacks in the 1980's and 90's. That list includes Michael Jones, Frank Bunce or Junior Tonu’u who started their careers with Samoa and went onto to play for the All Blacks. And also include Pat Lam, Stephen Bachop or Inga Tuigamala who had All Black careers but then were not needed and played for Samoa.
Stephen Bachop, who starred in
the 1999 RWC win over Wales,
would likely not played for
Samoa under current rules.

However now players get locked to one nation it's different. Prospective All Blacks hold off playing for Samoa knowing that they will end their chances of playing for them good, meaning the likes of Jones or Bunce would have never played for them under the current rules. In the 90's, Julian Savea for example might have played for Samoa in 2011 before his All Black debut. Whilst former All Blacks who had a career, sometimes very brief, are locked to New Zealand and can't play for Samoa at all; meaning 1999 World Cup captain Pat Lam would have never won an international cap at all now as he played for the Junior All Blacks. This scenario is now true for Fritz Lee, who won't get XV's cap for anyone unless Samoa does activate that Olympic loophole.

The problem was Samoa became a bit too good for some people's liking in the 1990's. After reaching a World Cup quarter final after beating Wales in 1991 with the likes of Frank Bunce starring for them, putting 40 on Ireland away from home in Dublin in 1996 and defeating Wales at their home World Cup in 1999 with sides spotted with ex-All Blacks like Tuigamala, Bachop and Lam and Super Rugby players they became seen as more of a threat, particularly to the Celts.
NZRU CEO: "There is a
group of northern unions
that is very nervous about
strengthening the Islands".

As a result the Celts lobbied for change in the IRB rules, meaning Samoa can no longer supplement their side with a John Afoa, Jerry Collins or Rudi Wulf who have finished their All Black careers. And some eligible players hold off playing for them, like we are seeing from Lima Sopoaga now who is eligible but holding on in hope of being an All Black.

The NZRU actually twice lobbied for the eligibility rule to be altered to benefit the Islanders, but it didn't pass through the IRB vote. As NZRU CEO Steve Tew put it "the reality is there is a group of northern unions that is very nervous about strengthening the Islands". Meanwhile former Samoan international Harry Schuster now President of FORU (Federation of Oceania Rugby Unions) put it more bluntly saying "they were just looking for excuses to stop our proposal because the fact of the matter is, they are so scared of how powerful we'll become if it goes through".

After reaching the World Cup knockout stage in all of the World Cup of the 1990's (and they would have reached the quarters in 1999 under the modern bonus point system rather than points difference), Samoa subsequently had a comparatively poorer decade in the 2000's. However they have had resurgence of late, which is partly due to greater success in attracting eligible talent to play for them. And that is partly linked to the finances in Europe and increasing attractiveness of Southern Hemisphere players moving north.
Kahn Fotuali'i was one of 8
Super Rugby players who
committed to Samoa in 2010
and has been a star player
for them ever since.

Whilst many of the players have come through the New Zealand system, there are only 2 spots for non-NZ qualified players in one of the five Super Rugby sides meaning to play for Samoa was a risk to a Super Rugby contract, which was why for instance Loki Crichton didn't appear at the 2003 World Cup. But with increasing wages in Europe and Japan, more players now are attracted to committing to Samoa and taking that money on offer. Players like Kahn Fotuali'i joining the Ospreys did this, and now so too are younger players like Alapati Leiua and Jack Lam who will both play in England next season.

Between 2010 when the upturn began and 2013, 18 players with Super Rugby experience committed themselves to Samoa and made their international debut. Kahn Fotuali'i , Jamie Helleur, Tasesa Lavea, Ti'i Paulo, Anthony Perenise, George Pisi, Josh Tatupu, Paul Williams (2010), Ole Avei, Johnny Leota, Tusi Pisi, Ezra Taylor, Taiasina Tuifu'a (2011), Filo Paulo (2012), Jack Lam, Alapati Leiua, Faifili Levave, Brando Va'aulu (2013) are all players with Super Rugby experience who committed themselves to Samoa.

Not all of them became essential members of the side but to put that in context, in the previous 4 years (2006-2009), only 5 players with Super Rugby experience made their Samoa debut in Loki Crichton, Seilala Mapusua (2006), Filipo Levi, Kane Thompson (2007) and Lucky Mulipola (2009). That figure of 18 is in fact more than the entire past decade (2000-09) combined. Crichton was set to play for Samoa in the 2003 World Cup, but

With the Olympic loophole appearing, there is the potential opportunity for Samoa to try and switch the nationality of some eligible ex-All Blacks like Fritz Lee or Isaia Toeava if they are willing to use it. And if they do, then they indeed are probably one of the nations who will benefit most from the loophole given the calibre of some eligible players locked and could field a pretty awesome team at the World Cup to help them reach the knockout stages again.

However returning to the main point that the poaching idea a complete and utter myth. There is no mass "poaching", "pillaging", "piracy" or "plundering" prominent in New Zealand rugby, and in fact the proximity and migration from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand is highly beneficial to all parties. New Zealand get outstanding rugby athletes like Julian Savea a second generation Samoan whose parents moved to the country, Samoa gets a large amount of their eligible player base go through the world leading rugby system.
Former captain Mahonri
Schwalger ripped into the
SRU after the World Cup

Samoa actually ought to be thankful they have New Zealand next door, and if they want to progress further instead look at the eligibility rules which binds talent to one nation, as well as themselves. The Samoan Rugby Union has faced allegations of "unprofessionalism, incompetency, corruption, theft and secrecy" which shocked senior players used to professional environments in Europe and with reports of "millions going missing".

If Samoa could manage to boost their side with ex-All Blacks such as John Afoa and Isaia Toeava, and then combine that with a highly professional union (not ones whose RWC training camp was reported to be a complete "shambles"), then they might have potential to rise to far higher peaks.


  1. top article bro lots of knowledge contained in their

  2. Sport Barry4/5/15 8:26 am

    I think you'll find that the European Clubs are often stopping Island players from representing their countries !

  3. Adrian Williams11/6/15 4:48 pm

    I agree the debate about Samoans being over-hyped so thanks for the evidence that proves that. However, how can you represent different countries at the same age level? If you chose a country and pin your colours to the mast that should be it. If those who have dual rights choose a country then they have to stick to it. Its a shame they didn't decide who to play for at the off rather than bemoan switching after the AB's have discarded them!

  4. Top article.