Meet the Rugby World Cup amateurs

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019 00:00 |
Tonga’s scrum-half Sonatane Takulua passes the ball during their 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool C match against England at the Sapporo Dome in Japan on Sunday. Photo/AFP

Tokyo, Monday

Siua Maile was working as a roofer in Christchurch when he got a call from Tonga’s national rugby team: they needed a hooker. Three weeks later, he was playing against the All Blacks.

Maile is one of dozens of soldiers, accountants, students and even vets that are not full-time professionals at the Rugby World Cup, harking back to the game’s cherished amateur origins.

Samoan flanker Chris Vui is a painter. Fiji’s number eight Viliame Mata was working as a joiner before being spotted by the country’s sevens coach and winning Olympic gold in 2016. Team-mate Mosese Voka is a fireman, while Namibia’s PJ van Lill is a dentist.

The lower-ranked teams are dotted with players who have to earn their crust off the field, with many of them making significant financial sacrifices to feature in Japan, a far cry from the comfortable salaries enjoyed by the richer nations.

“I would say 15 to 20 players made themselves unavailable. We can’t pay our players much,” coach Toutai Kefu told Britain’s Daily Mail, revealing they are paid “about $600 (Sh60,000) per week” during the tournament.

Assistant coach Dan Cron revealed that they discovered Maile via Facebook.

“I know that sounds funny, but it’s much what it is. We had a hooking crisis when we were in Tonga and we had to find one. He met us when we landed at Auckland Airport, but no one knew what he looked like,” he told local media in New Zealand. 

Thrown into the deep end during Tonga’s 92-7 obliteration at the hands of World Champions the All Blacks, the new dad did enough to win a place on the plane to Japan.

‘Pay to play’ 

It’s not just the poor Pacific Island nations that have to make do on a shoestring.

During a Japanese national team tour to England, it emerged the amateur players were getting a daily allowance of just 2,000 yen (Sh1,900).

Uruguay fly-half Felipe Berchesi is one of the lucky ones, with a professional contract in France for Dax, but he says that some of his amateur team-mates struggle.

“You have to be crazy to play rugby in Uruguay. You have to really want to play. They are mad. You have to pay to play here. They train in the evenings or morning, after or before work,” Berchesi told AFP.

Matchday appearance fees allow some of the players to spend a bit less time at work and more time playing, but many players still face a battle to make ends meet, he said.

“Our federation is not very rich. We make do with the resources we have,” said Berchesi, with rugby massively outgunned by football in a country that worships the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

The Namibia team that put up a brave fight against Six Nations side Italy, even taking the lead, have only a handful of professional players.

“We’ve trained in the morning and at night and their recovery sessions have been in their lunch break for some of them,” said defence coach Dale McIntosh.

McIntosh said some of his players have endured extraordinary conditions in far-flung outposts of the rugby world, Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda. -AFP

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