Senior figures in world rugby are fighting off a rebellion by Samoa’s leading players, who have threatened to boycott next week’s international with England at Twickenham.
Such a move would seriously disrupt the home team’s preparations for their home World Cup next year. Officials are confident the game will go ahead as planned, but with negotiations yet to reach a conclusion there is still a risk of militant action being taken by the Pacific Islanders.
England have only 11 matches left before the global tournament is held on these shores, beginning with this weekend’s game against South Africa, and three of those are warm-up fixtures of limited value in team-building terms.
Stuart Lancaster, England’s head coach, had long intended to introduce new players and experiment with fresh combinations against the Samoans and will be hoping against hope that the dispute is solved to everyone’s satisfaction.
International Rugby Board and Rugby Football Union figures are uncomfortably aware of the recent upheaval in cricket following the West Indies’ decision to cut short a tour of India – an outbreak of player power that cost the host nation millions of pounds in revenue and plunged the sport into uncertainty.
While members of the rugby establishment claim that the Samoans have rowed back on their threat of strike action in recent days, leading players privately insist that their options remain open.
The Samoans, who can lay claim to such outstanding international players as the Northampton scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i and the Wasps centre Alapati Leiua, are currently in the French town of Vannes, where they are scheduled to play Canada on Friday. A meeting with the international authorities has been pencilled in for Saturday, when they expect their concerns to be addressed. Should talks break down, the consequences will be unpredictable.
Late last month, the Samoan players contacted the IRB with a catalogue of complaints over the governance, management and financial running of their Test team. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Rugby Paper, alleged that players’ tour allowances had been frozen since 1990, that squad members pushing for better conditions had been blacklisted, and that the national union routinely interfered in team selection.
“We are unhappy with the incompetence of the Samoan Rugby Union in its current shape and under its current leadership,” the players wrote. “We would like to notify you that we have called for the resignation of a number of senior officials… and will be boycotting the game against England should our feelings not be addressed.”
Samoa may be one of the most impoverished of the world’s front-line rugby nations, but they are also among the most revered. Ever since beating Wales en route to the knockout stage of the 1991 World Cup, they have repeatedly punched above their weight.
They scared the living daylights out of England at the 2003 tournament, which Sir Clive Woodward’s side went on to win, and might have made the semi-finals of the last competition in 2011 but for poor preparation and flawed selection.
To their credit, the IRB top brass have come to understand the importance of the South Seas nations and worked hard to improve the support structures around Samoan rugby. But most of the leading Samoans who have not declared themselves available for New Zealand or Australia now play professionally in Europe. When they reconvene at Test level, which is meant to be a step up, they are ever more frustrated by the deterioration in standards of management.
The IRB said it “fully expected” the Samoans to honour their November Test programme in full, adding that all parties, including the International Rugby Players’ Association, were committed to “ongoing dialogue”.
The last time a major international match at Twickenham came under a boycott threat, the people doing the threatening were the England players. The 2000 autumn Test against Argentina went ahead only after a difficult few days during which the red-rose squad said they would strike over stalled negotiations concerning a £6,000 hike in match fees.Reuse content