WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Belgium Tuatagaloa had a stark choice to make when he was called into the Samoa squad for the first time a few months before the Rugby World Cup earlier this year - sign a new club contract or play for his country.
While World Rugby’s Regulation 9 dictates players must be released by clubs for internationals, it is not always cut and dried for professionals from outside the top tier of nations.
Tuatagaloa’s contract at his French club of the previous three years, Valence Romans, had expired and they wanted a commitment for the entire season, from August to May.
The winger led the try-scoring standings to help the club to promotion to the second tier of French rugby but playing at the Sept 20-Nov 2 World Cup would mean missing a fair chunk of the campaign.
“They did not specifically say ‘you stay and get a contract or you choose’. That was not said,” Tuatagaloa told Reuters.
“I think the coach wanted me to stay and play, but if I made the World Cup then I would miss nine or 10 games and he wanted someone who would be there for the whole season.
“I understand that but it was a sad moment, knowing that I had done everything for the club and helped them take it up to the next level.
“I thought they might make it a bit flexible, but that’s life and ... I’m happy with where I am at the moment and proud to represent my country at the World Cup.”
At the age of 29 and probably looking at his only chance of playing at rugby’s global showpiece, the New Zealand-born former sevens international had no hesitation.
“I never had the opportunity to play for my country in fifteens,” he said.
“When I got the opportunity, I turned it down for something bigger.”
Tuatagaloa’s story is far from unique among the hundreds of players from Pacific islands who earn their living as professional rugby players.
Another Samoan arrived at a training camp in July only to leave a couple of hours later after being offered a club contract worth more than the $65 a day he would have earned by staying.
TVNZ reported last month that a Tongan player had been offered an additional 100,000 euros ($110,650) on his contract if he did not play at the World Cup. He stayed with the club.
Pacific Rugby Players (PRP) union chief executive Aayden Clarke said he knew of players whose clubs, having released them for the World Cup, were now ringing them daily to entice them to turn their backs on their countries.
“I’m saying to World Rugby: ‘Do the players really need to go through this duress to get to the World Cup?’” he said.
“It’s a shocker.”
Clarke believes the issue is directly linked to performance at the World Cup, where none of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have qualified for the knockout stages since 2007.
World Rugby funded the three nations to the tune of about $24 million over the last World Cup cycle.
Clarke would like to see 30% of that cash used to pay players directly.
“That means the guys are being remunerated well enough to feed their families while they’re on international duty,” he said.
“Then obviously that decreases the resistance to the clubs allowing their players to play test rugby.”
Any short-term change of policy from World Rugby looked unlikely on Wednesday when chairman Bill Beaumont was asked about the issue.
“(Regulation 9) is sacrosant and set in stone to protect our international brand,” he told the opening news conference for the World Cup.
“But if players choose not to play international rugby then that is their decision.”
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Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Ian Ransom