A place in the Rugby World Cup quarter final will probably be at stake when Scotland and Samoa play in Newcastle on October 10. For some players it will be a career-defining encounter.
It should be a thunderous clash and I’ve been looking forward to it. Or at least I was, until this week when I read something that made me realise we’ll be taking on opponents who are fighting with one hand tied behind their back.
Dan Leo, the experienced lock, used an interview with Planet Rugby to explain why the Samoa team we see at the World Cup won’t be their best.
“I have had the pressure of choosing between whether or not to play for my country right through my career,” he said. “It’s probably even worse now because of the pressure on clubs to succeed.
“I can say confidently that every Pacific Island player when they’re talking with clubs will be pressurised to declare themselves unavailable for internationals. Two contracts, two salaries, one for if they retire/refrain from Tests and one if they don’t which can vary from up to 30 or 40 percent.”
Some of the best players for one of the world’s best teams won’t be playing at the World Cup – because they can’t afford to.
According to an economic study commissioned by the tournament organisers, RWC 2015 will generate up to £2.2 billion of output into the English economy. It will add nearly £1billion to England’s Gross Domestic Product.
And yet Samoa will not be able to put out their best team against Scotland because some of their players can’t afford to take part. At time of writing Samoa are ninth, one place above Scotland, in the official test rankings.
It’s not a new problem. Several players, notably the Fijians Sireli Bobo and Jone Qovu, made themselves unavailable for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand so they could play for their clubs.
This inequality could have been addressed in the last four years but the guardians of the game have other priorities. The chief executive of World Rugby, Brett Gosper, recently told a conference of sports industry delegates that he’d like to see more teams take part in the World Cup.
“As the sport grows and we conquer new markets the discussion is about looking towards expanding [of the World Cup], rather than contracting,” is what he said.
I hope to God someone had the mettle to ask Gosper why they were looking to conquer new markets when the world’s ninth-ranked nation can’t afford to enter their best team.
But what has any of this got to do with Scotland? Why should I, as a Scotland fan, feel uneasy about it?
Samoa boast one of the great tightheads of the modern era in Census Johnston. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely he’ll be lining up for them against us at St James’s Park. Instead he’ll probably be playing club rugby in France.
Let Dan Leo explain why. “It’s sad for Samoa, because we lose our most experienced tighthead prop, the cornerstone of our pack and one of our world class players,” he said to Rugby World.
“I’m not here to judge Census for his decision, because I can totally see why he chose to do that. If it comes down to a decision of whether you’re going to put bread on the table or not, what are you going to do? You’ll look after your family every time.”
Meanwhile the Scotland number three shirt may well be filled by WP Nel, a South African with no blood ties to our country. Three years ago he was drafted in to play for Edinburgh and serve his international residency requirements because the SRU felt that Scotland might not be able to rear a player of suitable talent in that position.
Nel is blameless; he’s a professional who is making the best possible career for himself and I wish him well if and when he plays for Scotland.
But something’s fundamentally wrong when one nation can go and buy a player off the shelf if they’re a bit short while their opponents have to make do without one of their totemic figures, who can’t be there because he’s had to decide “whether to put bread on the table or not”. And all while billions are being made in the background.
I hope Scotland beat Samoa on October 10. I can’t help it, I’m a Scottish rugby fan – and heaven knows nobody supports the Scottish rugby team purely out of a lust for glory.
If Scotland win, though, I’ll find it hard not to think about Census Johnston and feel a pang of guilt. The real kicker is that if Samoa win and make the knockout stages, I’ll think of Census Johnston and feel the same because he’ll have been priced out of an experience that money can’t buy.
I can think of no clearer example of rank, rotten unfairness. It stinks.