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Taking Fiji Rugby to Greater Heights: Q&A With Fiji Rugby Union Chairman And CEO

We congratulate him for leading our national sevens team to win our first Olympic gold medal and it is so unfortunate that in his book, he portrays Fiji, Fiji Rugby, staff and some players in a negative manner.
19 Jul 2020 09:50
Taking Fiji Rugby to Greater Heights: Q&A With Fiji Rugby Union Chairman And CEO
Former Fijian 7s head coach Ben Ryan (middle) with FRU chairman Francis Kean right during the 2016 Olympic Games gold medal win celebration in Suva. Photo: FRU Media
  • The final of the Part 3 interview series with FRU Media conducting Questing (Q) & Answer (A) with Fiji Rugby Union chairman Francis Kean and CEO John O’Connor.

Q: Compliance to good governance has been a key driver in this transformation journey since 2015. Why is this important to FRU?

A: The FRU board in 2015 came in with a clear vision to bring about change with good governance being the cornerstone of this transformation.

Our first board meeting was a shocker, board papers poorly prepared and our financial reports a ‘mess.’

Having had the privilege of serving on some prominent Government Commercial Statutory Boards, this was the genesis of change to come at Rugby House.

Sadly, we had to part company with a few staff to make way for new personnel whom we believed could champion the direction that we as a board wanted to pursue.

FRU was in a financial mess with repeated qualified annual financial reports, the failed FRU Lottery unresolved and is still in the courts, outdated HR and finance policies, a flawed outdated FRU Constitution and FRU staff serving onboard as a job rather than a career.

We still remember quite vividly the comments of the staff at FRU at the time, that board come and go every two years and the sarcastic comments that accompanied the statement.

They did not know that we were here to bring our robust changes including our Constitution which now allows the board a four-term plus directors being elected on a rotational basis.

This was done for some very good reasons as any board would not be able to achieve anything in two-year plus to ensure continuity and the transfer of knowledge rather than having a new board starting from zero every two years.

More importantly, good governance was also a key component to securing a World Rugby Council seat.

To get a seat on the World Rugby Council, we had to be seen on record as exercising good governance principles, have minimum three years of unqualified audited annual financial reports and a Constitution that was acceptable to World Rugby good governance principles. Thanks to God, we achieved this in only two years, a testament of the very good frank relationship we had with our counterparts at World Rugby especially chairman Sir Bill Beaumont, CEO Mr Brett Gosper and Head of Governance Mr David Carrigy plus of course the Executive Committee who we (CEO and chairman) had the opportunity of the meeting when they visited Fiji in 2016.

We were frank in our discussions with World Rugby regarding our Constitution. We stood our ground on ensuring that the Fiji Rugby Union Constitution was a Fiji solution for Fiji Rugby and not a World Rugby solution because it will never work. We are glad that eventually, we all came to an amicable solution regarding our Constitution.

This is what partnerships bring about and we are thankful to World Rugby for their guidance, prodding and understanding on where we wanted to take Fiji Rugby to.

When the board started as part of our governance reforms, we reviewed all the organisation policies, all sponsorship contracts, all employment contracts and other important documents.

At that time, Ben Ryan had been in the job as 7s head coach. In the review, process, we found out that his employment contract did not have any annual KPIs nor any provisions on succession planning.

We as such had arranged a meeting with Ben to discuss his KPIs and him taking some local coaches under his wing to mentor them.

Ben was adamant that he was not going to discuss any annual performance KPIs or to mentor any local coach but only to prepare the team for the Olympics.

As he highlighted in his book, we were then advised to live him alone which we did and vouched to ensure that we will provide all the support to him, so he had no excuses.

Ben Ryan had a free reign at FRU prior to this board coming into play. Our desire to bring about good governance into practice at FRU did not go down well with him for reasons best known to him.

Ben took advantage of the chaos prevalent at FRU since his engagement and we don’t blame him for this stance. Relooking at how he was engaged was pretty ‘sad’ and we feel for Ben.

We congratulate him for leading our national sevens team to win our first Olympic gold medal and it is so unfortunate that in his book, he portrays Fiji, Fiji Rugby, staff and some players in a negative manner.

We had offered him an employment contract a few months before the Olympics but after considering the offer he declined.

If he had accepted the offer, he would have been the highest-paid person in Fiji. However, that’s all history now as we continue to chart our way forward with improved practices.

Q: Why is FRU board a voluntary board?

A: Good question, however, before we answer, we would like to state that those intending to join the board as a director must come in with an attitude of service rather than one of being served.

Yes, the current FRU directors don’t receive any board fees despite our Constitution allowing such provisions for its members.

This was a collective decision of the current board; no director fees until such time FRU is a fully-fledged professional entity.

Whatever any future board intends will solely be their prerogative, however, we pray good sense will always prevail.

Q: The FRU AGM is planned for this Saturday. Are there any major announcements earmarked for Saturday?

A: Yes, the Council members are eagerly looking forward to this event which was postponed from April due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.

Our newly formatted Annual Report booklet is a starter. We thank the management team for this great initiative.

We believe that apart from another successful financial year despite the very high Rugby World Cup financial commitments, there is the election of new directors to the board.

A few of our directors will be rotating out voluntarily this year and a few next year to allow for continuity.

We are thankful to the directors who have volunteered to rotate out. We thank them for their services, loyalty, commitment, sacrifices, love and passion for Fiji Rugby.

We, hope that the incoming directors will be committed to serving with dedication on a voluntary basis.

Q: There is an influx of former national representatives now finding FRU as a choice of employment, why now?

A: Yes, we remember quite fondly having a talanoa session with the Flying Fijians after their victories over Italy and Scotland here at home in 2015.

This was part of our communication strategy to keep our customers (our players being one of the many) informed of the developments at Rugby House. We impressed upon the players present on the importance of life after rugby, getting an education and making FRU a choice of employment should there be an opening in the various units at Rugby House.

We have been blessed with the recruitment of a very good number of our former national representatives in the likes of Sale Sorovaki our Operations Manager, Bill Gadolo Manager Elite Pathway Program, Koli Sewabu Manager Development, Saiasi Fuli, Fijiana 7 Coach, Alifereti Doviverata, Fijiana Head Coach plus Developments Officers, Inoke Male and our latest recruit, Tiko Matawalu.

I believe the major scoop was securing the services of Simon Raiwalui as General Manager High Performance. Simon since his engagement has been a breath of fresh air to our High Performance Unit and is an asset to Fiji Rugby.

The recruitment of these former reps has made positive headway in the minds of our former national reps who now see FRU as an employment opportunity provider.

We are however, concerned with a few of our national reps who have decided to work in competition with the parent union and have set up their own academies and have also become player recruitment agents.

Our concern is mainly on the non-alignment of pathways and some of our best players who were part of the Fiji Rugby Academy and the national Under-20 team have been lured overseas without being capped.

We have had a few national U18 and U20 players who have been advised not to play for the Warriors even after being in camp since they will be capped and only eligible to play for Fiji since one of the requirements of their contract is that they must not be capped.

We strongly believe that this is not good for Fiji Rugby and lacks the patriotism which a few of these former national reps should be displaying; very selfish motives.

Q: There has been a lot of talk about why our Fijian heritage rugby players plying their trade in Australia and New Zealand aren’t being considered to represent Fiji? Please explain.

A: We have on numerous occasions during our bilateral meetings with NZRU and RA plus our Pacific Working Group meetings led by World Rugby, to advocate for the relaxing of contractual obligations on these players under both Unions who do not make it into the All Blacks or Wallabies.

Many need to understand that it is a business decision by both these Unions and we totally respect their stance. However, our advice to these players is to ensure that they make the right decision for the long term and not short-term gains.

We all know the regrets of a few players who now, want to represent Fiji after only playing one to five tests for these teams.

We will continue to probe NZRU and RA on these matters that if they are serious about assisting Fiji Rugby then they must consider allowing a quota system of our players to be included in each of their franchises.

The closer we have our players at home and playing in the southern hemisphere window, will ease a lot of administrative issues surrounding release of players during the international playing windows.

Our request to both NZRU and RA prior to COVID-19 was five players in NZ and four in Australia under each of the franchises.

We cognizant of the fact that these two Unions see our countries like great Rugby Academies (including Samoa and Tonga) to search for talent.

Whether these two Unions will allow this to happen is something we await with anticipation and hope; the great thing is that we have made our intentions known to them both and we will persist.

This is one of the reasons why we supported Sir Bill Beaumont’s and Bernard Laporte’s candidature because of the inaction by our southern hemisphere brothers.

Simply put, we have talking to them for decades but there was not much action. We had nothing to lose but heaps to gain and we are beginning to see the dividends of this wise decision.

Further, whenever our two big brothers have assisted us, it was at no cost to them but a financial burden to FRU, SRU and TRU.

When we played the All Blacks Maori in Fiji, last year, we had to pay a match fee of NZ$250k, flights and accommodation which in the end meant a financial burden on the home hosting Pacific Union.

We have not played the mighty All Blacks and the Wallabies in Fiji for quite some time and this is not because of lack of trying or negotiations but because we cannot afford the match fee that is required for us to pay to make such match happen.

We had only one meeting the French Rugby president and his team agreed that their national team will play a test match against the Flying Fijians in 2022, in Fiji.

Q: The biggest number of Fijian rugby players playing overseas are plying their trade in France. What is FRUs relationship with the France Rugby Union?

A: Yes, we have in access close to 300 Fijians playing their rugby in the various leagues under the French Rugby.

 

We both were in France last year on a fact-finding mission, meeting these players, understanding the system in France plus most importantly developing our rapport with our counterparts in the FFR, Mr Bernard Laporte, Mr Claude Atcher and Mr Nicolas.

We have a very good working relationship with the FFR.

The current MOU, we have in place on player releases has worked well for Fiji Rugby.

The support from France has been overwhelming and stupendous. The return of investment of the France trip is immeasurable and more is yet to come.

France has been a vocal supporter for Fiji Rugby on the floors of the World Rugby Council meetings plus in other rugby forums led by World Rugby.

The offer by FFR to support our national U20s preparation camps in France at the FFR cost in the lead up to the now postponed U20 Rugby World Cup plus for our Flying Fijians during the now-cancelled end of year tour to Europe has been nothing but remarkable.

We managed to secure a game against the French Barbarians with equal sharing of the gates, something touring sides never get a cut. Moore importantly they agreed to have the French national side to play a test match in Fiji in 2022 after their two-match tour to Japan.

Q: World Rugby Regulations 8 has been a controversial issue for many years now, why?

A: Absolutely correct for many Tier 2 rugby playing nations however depending on your player base, player talent, players development and pathway programs.

We have been strong advocates to keep the stand down period to three years and players only being eligible to change Unions via Olympic qualification for some good reasons.

As we stated earlier the players affected need to make the correct choice on which country they intend to represent.

Fiji Rugby is blessed with player numbers and talent, a far greater number compared to other tier two rugby playing nations and even some tier one countries.

Further, we had strongly supported the extension of residential requirement from three years to five years before an uncapped player who has changed his or her country of residence can represent their new country of residence.

As such our uncapped players who have signed contracts with clubs in Japan, Australia, NZ, can only represent there countries after 5 years of residing in in country whether it be Japan, Australia or NZ.

It is in FRU best interests to maintain such a stand to ensure we remain the dominant Pacific Island rugby playing nation which has rippling benefits in the bigger picture of rugby matters.

Q: There has always been criticism from people on the sidelines in the local and overseas media plus social media platforms about FRU and sometimes it is very personal? How do you both cope?

A: We both came out of Suva Rugby Union together with the intent of advancing Fiji Rugby having witnessed first-hand the stalemate at Rugby House for years.

Yes, in life there will always be critics as we can’t please everyone no matter what your best intentions maybe.

All the negative personal criticisms are God’s battle for both of us, that’s how we cope.

Apart from having thick crocodile skin, our faith and trust in God has kept us grounded and humble so we are able to forgive all our critics including Ben Ryan.

Q: What is the future look like for rugby in Fiji?

A: The sky’s the limit for Fiji Rugby. Rome was never built in a day. There must be continuity in this transformation journey for FRU to become a fully-fledged professional rugby organisation.

All the sound work undertaken over the last five years must not be put to waste. It has been a lot of hard work, sacrifice, commitment and goodwill to bring us to where we are today.

Our membership of the World Rugby Council has given Fiji Rugby the insights that has been missing for more than a century. We are now at the pinnacle of the decision-making body of the sport and with it comes to the leverage which we have utilised prudently for the benefit of Fiji Rugby.

It is just mind-boggling what a seat in the World Rugby Council can do for a small country like Fiji.

The securing of Vern Cotter as our Flying Fijian Coach augers well for Fiji Rugby.

The hard-nosed coach will live no stone unturned in our quest to compete and win against all rugby playing nations especially the tier one unions.

It amazing to see all the work that Vern has already undertaken behind the scenes whilst in New Zealand.

Feedback: leonec@fijisun.com.fj

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