Fiji Rugby and the NZ Government by Charlie Charters

Charlie Charters betterCharlie Charters worked in sports marketing for almost 15 years, includingat the Fiji Rugby Union from 2001-2004 and was the CEO of the first-everPacific Islanders Test team. He now works in North Yorkshire as a thrillerwriter, but has helped a number of young Fijian rugby players getscholarships to study in the UK.

As a matter of principle I think sporting sanctions targeting athletes are
WRONG. My overwhelming interest is that of the sportsman or woman. We only have a tiny amount of time on this Earth, and in the case of the athlete
their window to learn, to advance, to earn from their career, is but a blink
of the eye. Without exception the athletes effected by these sports
sanctions have no ability whatsoever to alter the course of events in Fiji,
so to punish them is symptomatic of lazy thinking.


That's my over-riding thought. That said, this is the course that the NZ
govt has decided upon. It's quite clear that the new nine-person board of
the FRU (including three Army or police officers and one Prime Minister's
nominee) is looking to use this narrow issue of sporting sanctions to
demonstrate a wider point about 'smart' sanctions in general and their use
against anybody associated with the regime. In the middle of all of this is
the long-suffering Fiji rugby fan who is looking at an increasingly bleak
situation where the rhetoric is rising and politicians on both sides appear
to be painting themselves into positions they can't back down from.
So perhaps some basic observations might be helpful.

As an armchair rugby fan, I'll put this out there: I don't think there is
anybody who is currently serving in the Fiji military who is good enough to
be selected into Fiji's RWC squad. As was noted by the RWC manager Pio Bosco
Tikoisuva last week, for this year's tournament the FRU can draw upon a
theoretical list of professional players that will provide skill,
physicality and big-match temperament across all the positions. Potentially
- putting sanctions to one side - this will be the best team on paper that
Fiji has ever fielded. That's right, including the front row which has been
Fiji's Achilles heel in the past. Fifteen years of professional rugby has
done this. Now, with some confidence, one can say that if an Army, Navy or
Police player was good enough to be professional, like Sireli Naqelevuki
(Navy), they would have sought a discharge and left the ranks in order to
play overseas and earn their corn while they could.

It follows from this contention, that if anybody from the military is named
into the RWC squad as a player then it is probably being done to make
mischief and to turn the theoretical issue of sporting sanctions into an
immediate crisis of an irresistible-force-vs-immovable-object nature. [They
might simulate the issue equally well by nominating a military man into the
management squad of the RWC squad. Although, again, it would be hard to
argue that there was anybody on the military side whose skill set was so
unique that the Fiji team would be disadvantaged without them.]

However on the 7s side of the national game, there is no doubt that the
semi-professional, semi-amateur nature of that particular code means that
there have been and will continue to be several players, the likes of Dale
Tonawai, Nikola Matawalu and Waqabaca Kotobalvu, employed by the military
who would be best picks in any 7s selection. That they are effectively
selected out of the team by sporting sanctions is, by any analysis, both
unfair and a breach of natural justice. Fiji rugby fans have a right to feel
outraged at this and to that extent the government is only amplifying those
genuine grassroots sentiment.

It is hard to understand how not allowing a non-commissioned officer like
Tonawai to play in the Adelaide 7s this year is going to push Fiji one inch
closer to elections, as compared to the same sanctions imposed on the
members and immediate family of, for instance, the Cabinet or senior
military figures.

[The application of 'smart' sanctions against Fiji's sportsmen would be one
thing if it was being done consistently: following the October 1999 coup in
Pakistan that deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's national
cricket team toured Australia in season 1999/2000 and no sanctions were
levelled or even threatened; likewise following the 2006 Thai coup d'etat.]
So the case for the FRU to express its outrage over the manipulation of the
7s team is much clearer than for the 15s team. However ... and there's
always a 'however' ... Fiji doesn't have many cards to play when it comes to
the threat of a boycott:

Before the start of each 7s season, the FRU has to sign a participation
agreement with the IRB. This basically commits the FRU to sending the
national 7s team to all 8 tournaments, in return for which they receive a
lump sum (I seem to remember about F$100,000 per year when I was working at
the FRU in the early 2000s), with tournament organisers and sponsors
covering all travel and internal costs to and from the tournament. Thus, if
Fiji indicated they would boycott one or two events next season, they would
be in breach of their participation agreement.

Besides which, the 7s Series is organised into brackets of two events over
consecutive weekends with the IRB tournament sponsors, Emirates or Cathay
Pacific (depending on the tournament) shuttling the players from city to
city. To withdraw from the Gold Coast event would also mean tearing up their
tickets for the Hong Kong 7s. Likewise to pull out of the Wellington 7s
would mean dropping the Las Vegas tournament as well. Suddenly Fiji is left
with just 50 percent of the events.

On a broader point, sad as it is for me to suggest this, I don't think
Fiji's absence is quite the killer blow many at home would like to think.
The last few years have proven that Fiji is not the world 7s powerhouse it
was in the early 1990s and 2000s. The economics of these tournaments rely
primarily on what are called Match-day revenues (not TV rights fees or
sponsorship), primarily ticket sales and profits from food and beverage, and
corporate hospitality. It's a party crowd, looking to watch entertaining
rugby while guzzling beer and back-slapping with mates, not some scientific
determination that absolutely requires the very best teams to be present.
Sorry Fiji. I am not saying the country wouldn't be missed and I am not
saying it wouldn't have an effect on income, but it would be more modest
than the sabre-rattlers in Fiji might think.

So what does Fiji do?

There are a great deal of iniquities built into the system. It used to anger
me immensely that the $100,000 the FRU received to cover our costs was a
gross amount. We had to pay for visa fees for all the players from this (not
a small amount, believe me, especially when you're also paying for transit
visa fees as well). We had to pay for the team manager to fly to Wellington
or Canberra to lodge the visas, pay for the visas themselves, and then
return. This was not something the Tier One unions had to do - the UK,
Australian and NZ unions, for instance - who mostly had either visa free
access or a local embassy. So our $100,000 was more like $50-60,000 once the
hard costs of the visas were subtracted. Despite our repeated pleas, the IRB
made no move whatsoever to recognise this two-speed system they were
promoting. Everybody was said to be equal, but some were more equal than
others.

In truth, the only way for Fiji to genuinely prosecute this issue (the visa
issue, the sporting sanctions issue and so many others in rugby) is to
present a common front with the other unions that this impacts. Most notably
our rugby cousins in Samoa and Tonga. Fiji's lone voice, trying to draw
attention to alleged injustices but coming from an administration dominated
by military figures or appointees, is necessarily compromised. But if Fiji's
plaintive voice was somehow to be echoed by Samoa and Tonga ... then that
would be a genuinely irresistible call for fair play and a level playing
field. That would be impossible, or at least less politically plausible, for
a NZ govt to stare down.

The only trouble is, I don't think Samoa and Tonga want to play ball at the
moment. And that's the biggest mis-step that's been made in all of this.'

Comments

Tania said…
As usual, Charlie is spot on
pasifika said…
Even though Fiji may not have won as many games in the IRB Sevens as they would have liked, they continue to be one of the strongest competitiors and continue to entertain the crowd.Top teams need and want strong competition and Fiji provides that. A tournament without Fiji would lose a great deal of its zing. Fiji's biggest drawback seems to be a lack of scientific approach to addressing mental fitness and for sure once that is fixed they should rediscover their winning ways.All players with talent and who have passed the fitness tests including those in the military must be given their democratic right to contest a place in the Fiji team for the Pacific Nations Cup and the World Cup. If after a democratic selection process New Zealand continues to dictate to Fiji on the composition of its team there will be blatant injustice on some players and will be one of the worst examples of bad sportsmanship in the history of sports. Charlie Charters has betrayed the FRU if he thinks players may not be selected on merit. The trials held recently has revealed that military men are among the best on the field. FRU should send a video of the trials to McCully and his PM to look at for their comments. Charlie Charters does not deserve a copy.
Charlie Charters said…
@ Pasifika, with respect, you seem to have read a different article to theone I wrote in which made quite clear that I am against sporting sanctions against individual athletes, saying it was both unfair and against naturaljustice.

However we are where we are. Because this issue has been sold by the NZ govt to it's people as a tool to return to Fiji to democracy and because, quite frankly, of the ineptitude of the Fiji regime's public relations machinery and ability to put Samoa and Tonga on the wrong side, the NZ people are not
seeing this issue in purely sporting terms: the level playing field, giving the small guy a 'fair go', David vs Goliath. Samoa and Tonga should have our backs on this issue, but they won't.

I don't appreciate being told (from behind by the cover of anonymity) that I have betrayed the FRU. The FRU finds itself in an almost impossible position at the moment: not only is it trying to thread a delicate diplomatic line through an eye of a needle, it is waiting for its promised $3m funding from
the government.

The point I was making was I don't think there are any players currently in the military sides who are good enough to be automatic selections into the RWC squad (not the 50-man side they're naming this weekend) but the final, final squad to travel to NZ. Clearly that is an subjective view and I would
be happy to be proved wrong. In the reviews I read in the Fiji Times and Sun other, non-military players were the one's that seemed to be catching themedia's eye.

I made a different point about the 7s team - that military players are
always likely to feature in any coach's first selection, and that banning these players is, again, totally wrong
pasifika said…
@ Charters

You speak too soon from your distant and comfortable armchair when you say,
" I don't think there is
anybody who is currently serving in the Fiji military who is good enough to be selected into Fiji's RWC squad." Give the men a break, the selection process is work in progress.
And your view " that if an Army, Navy or Police player was good enough to be professional, like Sireli Naqelevuki
(Navy), they would have sought a discharge and left the ranks in order to play overseas and earn their corn while they could," is rather simplistic isn't it. The variations in the human condition in Fiji and elsewhere for that matter means that not all military men who would want to can do the same as Naqelevuki.You betray the FRU by saying," It follows from this contention, that if anybody from the military is named
into the RWC squad as a player then it is probably being done to make mischief and to turn the theoretical issue of sporting sanctions into an immediate crisis of an irresistible-force-vs-immovable-object nature." Since your contention is fallacious, your
ensuing argument is mischievous if not fictitious.You are obviously anti-military and are you once again promoting a Pacific Islander team up? You know what Charlie, you should stick to writing fiction. Fiji Rugby's preparation to field its best team for the World Cup is purely non-fiction. If you don't appreciate my anonymity, too bad - it's legal on this site.
sara'ssista said…
@ Charlie...sanctions do not 'target sportmen' they target the military and those who are directly linked and benefit. The are caveats and those that relate usually to humanitraian issues, i hardly see sport as falling into that category. It is not 'business as usual' in fiji and i hardly see why sport should somehow get an exemption. I don't even see it as a 'tool to return fiji to democracy', i see it as punishment and warning and justly so. The regime uses this as a political wedge and good on them for trying, but they chose to go the route of an illegal coup, so they will just have to suck it up.

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