World Rugby Freezes Tongan Funding

Tonga is rugby’s new basket case in the Pacific Islands after having its funding frozen ahead of crisis talks with the game’s governing body early next month. In a similar
27 Mar 2016 13:59
World Rugby Freezes Tongan Funding
Tongan rugby team perform their traditional war dance during last year’s Rugby World Cup. Photo: Zimbio

Tonga is rugby’s new basket case in the Pacific Islands after having its funding frozen ahead of crisis talks with the game’s governing body early next month.

In a similar scenario to what Samoa endured after strike action from the players in 2014, World Rugby is preparing to send a high-powered delegation to Tonga in the first week of April to address significant debt levels, multiple law suits and a lack of independent governance facing the troubled union.

The proud rugby nation that has strong ties to the late Jonah Lomu and the Piutau brothers, Charles and Siale, is now on its knees.

Tonga will not receive any assistance from World Rugby this year until these issues are addressed and reforms put in place.

At present the union cannot pay its staff or national players who competed in the Pacific Challenge Cup in Fiji.

World Rugby says it provided Tonga with 3.5 million pounds ($10.3 million FJD) in direct financial assistance between 2012 and 2015. Questions are now being asked about where the money has been spent.

“We need to resolve these issues before we can agree on funding for 2016,” Will Glenwright, World Rugby’s Asia and Oceania general manager, said.

“They’re at the point now where they need funding to continue their high performance and development programmes. We’re conscious of that and that’s why we’ve prioritised this trip.

“The TRU and World Rugby are in agreement as to the issues that need to be resolved. The purpose of our meeting in April is to agree on a process.”

Tackling debt and confronting two court cases seeking unpaid money are urgent matters. The union owes 700,000TP (FJ$665,220) in backdated office fees and a further 300,000TP (FJ$285,166) to Carinat, a sports marketing company. It has also struggled to provide national teams with playing kit.

“We’re concerned as are the Tongan union. Those things are a risk to the long term viability of the organisation,” Glenwright said. “It’s important we get those resolved before we move forward.

“We want to address these matters once and for all. If we’ve made some mistakes in the past we want to make sure we don’t make them again.”

The funding freeze could not come at a worse time with Tongan rugby at its lowest ebb. The sevens team has not featured regularly on the Sevens World Series for two years and, after finishing third in their pool at last year’s World Cup, the XV-man side must now qualify for the next edition in Japan in 2019.

It’s a far cry from the memorable scenes which saw Auckland Airport come to a standstill when the Tongan team arrived at the 2011 World Cup, a tournament where they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history by rolling France in pool play in Wellington.

World Rugby is after a “please explain” around the decision to not renew the contracts of high performance manager Peter Harding and XVs coach Mana Otai, both of whom served the last four-year cycle.

Those moves came after interim chairman Feao Vunipola, the father of England rugby stars Mako and Billy, assumed control.

As part of the agreement for funding those roles, World Rugby expect to be consulted about such decisions. Vunipola did not respond to a request for comment.

“If they have chosen not to continue with the contracts of those staff then we want to understand why because we fund those positions in full.”

Asked for his opinion on the situation former Tongan international Willie Lose said he believed politics and infighting have created a dysfunctional environment where those at the helm refuse to accept the requirements of the modern, professional, commercialised era.

“The governance and the whole way rugby is run in Tonga is a joke,” Lose said. “The (problems with) funding have been around Tongan rugby for that past 20 years so I’m not surprised by the current state of affairs.

“The only way it will get resolved is if World Rugby sends in people to oversee it.

“I’ve always said you shouldn’t be writing out cheques and sending money; you should be purchasing what you want and making sure that arrives because the governance isn’t up to it. “I hear these stories all time and when they ask for help trying to secure some funds I’ve given up.”

At the elite level Tongan rugby relies on attracting its overseas-based players, particularly those on the fringe of national teams such as the All Blacks, Wallabies, France and England. But until the lack of leadership and financial problems are addressed the union will struggle to entice its high-profile players home.

“The situation in Tonga from what we can understand is the worst it’s ever been,” New Zealand Players’ Association chief executive Rob Nichol said. “In this particular instance there is no-one else to blame. The problem is not an operational or player concern – the issue is to do with the extremely poor governance of Tongan rugby.

“Now the sad part is it’s going to result in some consequences. They need to take some ownership of the problem. Previous governance of Tongan rugby has effectively left the union in a state of disrepair and brought it to its knees.”

Glenwright is hopeful World Rugby can help Tonga follow Samoa’s lead in creating meaningful change.

“We’re confident after his meeting in April we’ll be able to agree on funding allocations for 2016 and be able to send that over to Tonga.”


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