Rio 2016 Olympics: Pacific Island rugby -- Trouble in paradise?

Updated 7:01 AM ET, Tue August 9, 2016

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(CNN)It could be one of the feel-good stories of Rio 2016 -- a tiny island nation triumphs on the world's biggest sporting stage to win its first Olympic medal.

Fiji is favorite to claim gold in the men's rugby sevens tournament, which starts Tuesday, having overcome financial problems and the loss of leading players to win back-to-back world titles.
Such a result would, according to Brett Gosper, the head of World Rugby, be "the fairytale result -- a story that transcends the sport."
But not everything is rosy with rugby in the Pacific Islands. Neither Samoa, a one-time powerhouse of the sevens format, nor Tonga have qualified teams for Rio.
And the three rugby-proud nations are losing top talent to an increasing number of tier-one teams -- an age-old problem -- with many stories of players then being blocked from playing for their countries by their club employers.
The body representing the players has heard stories of players being left stranded without visas in their new countries, or else left with sizable tax bills, unaware of the contracts they had signed.

The great rugby rip-off?

English clubs sign many Samoan players such as Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu.
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu represented Samao on 23 occasions and had a lengthy professional career in England with Bath and Gloucester. Having returned to Samoa, he is increasingly concerned about the plight of Pacific Island players.
"Everyone comes here to take players but they don't give back," he explains. "When they take players, they don't then get to play for their countries. It's take, take, take. Everyone is trying to rip everyone off.
"You hear stories of dudes just stranded in France with no money to get home. It's hard because a lot of these boys have never left the island, so to grasp the concept of money and contracts is difficult. These are complex 30-page documents for guys that barely speak English, so people can rip them off and dump them."
    World Rugby rules stipulate the players at clubs across the globe must be released to play for their countries in the international window, but Fuimaono-Sapolu says he knows of a litany of instances where players have effectively been blocked from doing that by their clubs.
    Pacific Island teams also suffer when players from countries such as Samoa or Fiji acquire dual citizenship and represent their adopted nations -- meaning they are no longer eligible for their homeland.
    "There are players that can't play for the country of their birth as they've played one minute for New Zealand Sevens," Fuimaono-Sapolu says.
    "These rules are contrary to simple UN human rights. I've seen contracts where locals only get a contract if they agree not to play for Samoa. We're just cannon fodder."

    'Regulation nine'

    World Rugby invested £26.8 million ($35 million) into the three unions in the four years leading up to the 2015 World Cup and held its first committee meeting of Bill Beaumont's current presidency in Fiji this year. In addition, the ruling body is looking at introducing a Fijian team in Australia's National Rugby Championship.
    While CEO Gosper admits there are "challenges," he is confident World Rugby is moving in the right direction in the region.
      Speaking in Rio de Janeiro on the eve of sevens making its Olympic debut, he said: "You want to make sure you're optimizing that region as best you can, that your high-performance programs are as they should do, that you keep players in the country the best way you can and for as long as you can, and ensure that those players come back to play for their country.
      "We police that as strongly as you can, and some things happen that we can't control in ensuing that regulation nine (the rule that stipulates clubs must release players to represent their country) is respected. We're continuing to think about and invest in the region."

      Minimum wage

      Samoa won May's Paris Sevens title but lost in the final of the Olympic repechage qualifier.
      The exodus of players has had a direct impact on Samoa's sevens program, in particular. Census figures show that nearly as many Samoans now live in New Zealand than on their home island.
      The team's English coach Damian McGrath built up a squad of 16 players last season, but will be forced to start from scratch for the 2016-17 Sevens World Series.
      "We'll start the season with just three guys from last year's squad," he says, "and that's because the others have gone overseas and some not necessarily to play professional rugby.
      "Five of our players have moved to New Zealand just to work and play for local clubs. It's not about professional rugby for them, it's something that gives them a lifestyle."
      The lure of moving abroad is obvious. In Fiji, the minimum wage is just FJD $2.32 ($1.12) per hour whereas in Australia and New Zealand the earning potential is infinitely higher.

      'Every man for himself'

      Akapusi Qera in action for Fiji at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
      The club-versus-country row is arguably the biggest issue, though, facing the Pacific Islands.
      Akapusi Qera has twice turned down the opportunity to represent his country for the good of his club career -- the second time was at the expense of the Fijian captaincy.
      "I decided not to play for my country and that didn't go down well back at home," he says from his home in the south of France. "People talk crap about it but, at the end of the day, it's every man for himself.
      "You're so proud to play for your country and you have to take tough decisions along the way because of family. It's a very difficult decision, one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to do."
        Qera first withdrew from Fiji's northern hemisphere tour in November 2012 in order to focus on playing for Gloucester in what he described as "a series of important games coming up." He was captain for the 2015 World Cup but made himself unavailable for June's home internationals.
        Players will often have to pay their own way to fly back home to represent their countries, with no funds from the national unions. When coach Ben Ryan took over Fiji's sevens team in 2013, he was not paid for four months due to his employer's financial problems.

        Representing the players

        Former NZ Sevens star Josh Blackie now works for the International Rugby Players' Association.
        Qera's other gripe is that Pacific Island players get treated differently by clubs.
        "Take the England or France boys," he says. "When they come back from their Tests, they get days off but the island boys always go straight back in. There's never any time off. That's just bad for player welfare.
        "As professional rugby players, we deserve to be treated the same. These are the things World Rugby needs to hear. They need to know about the difficulties going on. I'm just grateful for Josh Blackie and his team for helping and now there are players' associations set up in the islands. That's a big plus moving forward. I hope this will change things."
        Former NZ Sevens representative Blackie works for the International Rugby Players' Association (IRPA), which also incorporates the Pacific Islands Players' Association (PIPA).
        According to the IRPA calculations, 16% of all professional rugby players on the planet are of Pacific Island descent. His organization represents 350 players from the region, and in the past few months has put a player development officer in Fiji.
        Fiji's sevens team trains during its Olympic selection camp.
        "It might be if a player hasn't sought independent advice or a club is exploiting a player for whatever reason, or they've been sold a good story," Blackie says. "For us, the key is to get the key messages across early on in terms of tax, budget, how to handle themselves publicly, on social media.
        "Sure, there are horror stories but we're working hard and taking a positive approach from the start rather than dealing with the train wreck at the end. And sometimes we're like an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff if players make an error or something else goes wrong.
        "We have examples of players going to a club and doing everything for it, sometimes to the detriment of playing for their national union. World Rugby have relations in place to protect the smaller islands and nations for player release.
        "There's certainly a lot of work to be done to ensure that the Pacific Islands have access to the players to use them when they need them. No one has a magic bullet at the moment, that's the reality and it's a challenge."

        Future solutions?

        Seilala Mapusua was Samoa's vice-captain at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
        Many Pacific Island players either in the twilight of their career or now retired have been working with Blackie and PIPA in a bid to help improve the game in the region and also relieve the plight of the players.
        The visit of the world champion All Blacks to Samoa in 2015 gave the sport a massive boost, while New Zealand provincial teams the Chiefs and Crusaders contested a Super Rugby competition match in Fiji.
        Former Samoa international Seilala Mapusua is one of those liaising with Blackie, looking for answers to the problem.
        "I've asked myself the same questions throughout my career -- how to solve it. What can be done to improve it?" he says.
        "I really don't know what the answers are, maybe some form of shared revenue when Samoa plays to a sell-out crowd at Twickenham, almost as an act of good faith. I know the home nation isn't obliged to. Getting the All Blacks to Samoa last year was absolutely huge. Hopefully that can encourage other top tier nations to come over.
        All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was made an honorary High Chief Of Vaiala on the 2015 visit to Samoa.
        "It feels like things are slowly heading in the right direction. The buzz from the All Blacks was huge, likewise the Super Rugby game, and Samoa made the game competitive. It shows if given the chance we're not too far behind.
        "But there are still issues. You get boys withdraw from tours all the time and you never hear them say 'the club wanted me to stay' as clubs have to release them for international duty -- but everyone knows it's happening.
        "Players are caught between a rock and a hard place. Everyone wants to represent their country, that's the pinnacle for a professional rugby player."

        Club vs. country

        Hale T-Pole (left) in action for Tonga against Namibia at the 2015 World Cup.
        The recurring theme appears to be the difficulty in getting players released to play for their country and thereby give the Pacific Island nations the best chance possible to shine on the global stage.
        Former Tonga international Hale T. Pole wants players to stand up more strongly on the issue.
        "I didn't care if the club were going to sack me to not," he says. "So I never had a problem on playing for my country as I stayed firm.
        "That's supposed to be law that they have to release you, but some clubs beat players down on that. It didn't happen to me but I've seen it firsthand, players not getting released from their clubs. The clubs would try to bend the rules without saying 'you have to stay.'"
        Tonga has not played a home international since 2009, something that Pole describes as "unheard of" -- but he believes rugby authorities are addressing the issue.
        "I know Tongans are quick to judge World Rugby," he adds. "But World Rugby have done their best. We're all trying to do our best but, right now, I feel a bit lost."
        The sense is that things are slowly changing. If Fiji wins gold in Rio on Thursday, the ripple effect could provide benefits for the wider region.