Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW) & ProFifteen Player Management

PRPW and ProFifteen Player Management share an ambition to improve the wellbeing and career development of Pacific Island (PI) rugby players. While PRPW works globally towards its goals, ProFifteen is making a difference to PI players based in the UK.

We interviewed the driving force behind each organisation: Sam Tuitupou the former All Black behind ProFifteen, and Dan Leo, founder and director of PRPW to find out how their shared values and ambitions are making a difference to the lives of players. Sam is a great supporter of the work of PRPW, and is actively involved with its work around the world.

Dan Leo & San Tuitupou (both back row, Sam far left, Dan 5th from left) at a reception at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

What are the core values of your organisation and how do you see those overlapping with PRPW?

While Sam and Dan agree that the reach of their activities is different, PRPW and ProFifteen share a strong emphasis on family values and to support PI players both on and off the field to including all aspects of player development, mentoring and welfare.

ProFifteen works in the UK with a wide range of players including many from the Pacific Islands as an agent with a difference – first hand knowledge of the cultural and social needs of PI players informs a more rounded welfare-first approach to their clients.

PRPW’s reach is understandably broader, it exists to serve all rugby players of Pacific Island heritage who are playing around the world and are earning their main source of income from rugby. PRPW does this by ensuring its members are treated equitably and justly in the countries that they live and play in and as a result their welfare and wellbeing are protected.

PRPW is active in lobbying respective governing bodies to bring about changes to Rugby Union around the world that would benefit all those involved in the game, not just Pacific Island players. These include level access to the voting system withing World Rugby; development of a revenue sharing solution to even out earnings across all nations and reform of the ‘Tier’ system that discriminates against Tier 2 countries in eligibility, distribution and administration of funding, restriction of opportunity to play Tier 1 teams and even match scheduling at World Cups.

How are those values applied to support your own organisation and its clients?

From ProFifteen’s perspective, it’s all about doing what’s right for the player, not necessarily all about the money. “Making sure where we place our players is right – that they have the support around them and they are going to be looked after and settle in well is all vital,” Sam explains. “Regular contact as well as welfare surveys ensure that no one falls between the cracks – and this goes for European heritage players as well as those from the Pacific Islands.”

This dovetails perfectly with PRPW’s efforts to serve the needs and requirements of PI players on a day to day basis, ensuring they and their families are able to carry out their jobs to the best of their abilities.

This is seen in many forms including; helping connect communities, player integration, education of players entering and exiting the game, establishing links with and developing relationships with partner organisations and other stakeholders in the game, ensuring players receive sound advice in areas like financial planning and many, many more.

ProFifteen appreciates the importance of family values and that’s why Liz works closely with wives and partners to help ease the stresses off field. She assists with all aspects of relocation including flights, visas, accommodation & relocation allowances to a lot of aspects that often get overlooked. Setting up bank accounts, finding suitable childcare and schooling options, registering with doctors and dentists and also introducing other PI families within the same community.

PRPW’s welfare work over the past four years has also included hosting cultural awareness workshops at professional clubs and raising awareness of the plight of some of the players who have for several reasons found themselves in very difficult and in some cases life threatening circumstances and supporting these players on an ongoing basis in all ways, including financially.

Are there any clubs who have fully taken onboard the specific welfare needs of PI Players?

“Some more than others I’d say,” commented Sam Tuitupou. “From personal experience, Sale Sharks and Coventry have completely embraced the needs of our PI players, probably because of my involvement as a player.  Both clubs have hosted specific events and gatherings for PI players and families, even to the extent of letting them use the club facilities at Christmas time so family and friends outside of rugby can be together.”

Thanks to the work of PRPW as well as work ProFifteen is doing with the clubs, there is an increasing willingness to learn about the needs of Pacific Islanders and how they may differ from home nation players. Dan Leo, from PRPW explains: “The clubs in the U.K. are gradually getting to grips with the fact that their Pacific island players often require a different to support structure than others. A number of clubs have done a good job incorporating aspects of cultural awareness and integration into their programmes. Newcastle Falcons who have a large number of P.I players for instance, hold a cultural day where players of different nationalities are encouraged to share about their cultures and traditions with the rest of the squad. For the island players, this involved cooking a traditional lovo for the entire Falcons squad and staff.”

“It’s the logical thing to do,” concludes Sam. “If you’re paying to bring in the natural rugby talents of our boys, it makes sense to make sure they are able to perform consistently well because their off-pitch life is settled.”

ProFifteen’s Client Manager, Liz, plays a key role in this and has also established relationships with many of the team managers across the leagues, working with them to help them understand and take account of the cultural and emotional differences they encounter with their Pacific Islands players.

Can you give an example of how you have used your values to support PI players living overseas?

Sam understands that the Christmas period is a particular difficult time for overseas players. “The last 3-4 years we have organised a gathering for these families who are on their own to meet up and celebrate together.” Other activities range from family BBQ’s with children’s entertainment to joining up with Pasifika Unite in their historic 3 day Event and Conference in Loudres, France

One of the hardest situations PRPW has had to deal with was that of Sione Vaiomounga, a Tongan player who experienced kidney failure while playing and living in Romania. Dan and the PRPW team were able to rise to the challenge “Thankfully by working together with the public, we were able to fund raise enough to support him and his family through life saving treatment and visa applications to remain.”

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What needs to happen in the UK game to address the mental issues raised in the latest Oceans Apart video?

PRPW and ProFifteen both plan to keep pushing education on the understanding of the mentality of overseas players and identifying individual behaviour resulting in performance issues on the field, and both men are pleased to see ex-players such as Johnny Leota and many others working for their previous club in a Player liaison/transition role.

But is this symptomatic of a larger issue? Dan thinks so: “On a larger scale, as a society we need to get better at talking through these issues. Mental health doesn’t just affect Pacific Islanders, men in general are massively affected by depression. As an organisation we are making strides to help but we need buy in from clubs, agents and governing bodies to ensure we can develop those.”

What are ProFifteen and PRPW doing to help UK rugby address the mental health issues raised in the Oceans Apart video?

As well as regular contact with all his players, Sam explains that Profifteen issues regular Player Welfare Surveys to all players and have in-house resources to deal with situations if and when they arise. This ongoing contact not only with players but also with their wives and partners encourages them to flag any issues immediately and gives ProFifteen the chance to identify any underlying concerns. Through the relationships Liz has built with families, they know she is there, at the end of the phone or email if there’s any information or advice they need.

Dan from PRPW goes further: “The best thing about ProFifteen is that Sam Tuitupou is one of those Pacific Island players who has experienced all of those issues that we speak about in the Oceans Apart episode first-hand. He has lived the life and knows the pressures. Importantly, he knows what it takes to come through the other side. That is invaluable experience and places him in a unique position to be able to offer Pacific island players a level of pastoral care that may be impossible with other agencies.”

What impact has Covid-19 had on the PI playing community?

The impact of Covid-19 has been massive for Pacific Island players in the UK and around the world and while teams and national sides are struggling, the priority for Dan and Sam has been the pressure the pandemic has placed on players and their families.

PRPW and ProFifteen have been pulling out all the stops to make sure players have access to as much support as possible. PRPW has been at full stretch supporting players and teams globally. Meanwhile, ProFifteen has provided important information and action plans for all its players (including non PI players in the company’s stable) on UK furlough roles, benefits, sick-pay and reducing outgoings. Sam and Liz have been following up with one to one support where needed – including on visa issues arising from players not currently working because of the pandemic.

Are there any UK clubs who are handling the welfare of their Pacific Island players really well, and if so how are they doing this and have you been involved in helping them?

This is an ongoing process that ProFifteen is working on with PRPW, to work with clubs and the agent’s clients. Lots of education, as well as the kind of practical support ProFifteen offers players and their families too.

Naturally the clubs that players find it easiest to settle at are those with other Pacific islands players and families. “We love and need community but that’s not always easily available at the clubs so where we can, we try and link players with other Island families that may live close by,” commented Dan. “In the U.K. we have strong links with the British army and there are lots of retired Fijian servicemen and women all around the country who have similar experiences and are always willing to help out their fellow Islander families.”

How much of the welfare and mental health issues surrounding Pacific Island players is down to practical help with setting up home in the UK, and how much is driven by separation from family and culture?

ProFifteen believes that helping with the things mentioned before – flights, accommodation, finding childcare/schools etc is a massive help towards welfare issues. This is an area most premiership clubs are very good at and have the procedures/facilities in place to support but the guys in the lower leagues are often left to do it for themselves and this can be very daunting and another factor added to the stresses of moving to a foreign country.

Family is at the absolute heart of Pacific Island culture and that’s why it’s so important to ProFifteen to get the player/family balance right. Liz has sourced a whole range of support for families to help integrate them into their communities from finding cars so they’re not stuck at home all day to registering the kids with schools and joining gyms & local sports clubs.

Dan agrees that this approach is helpful: “Organising your life-off-the-field plays a huge role on the mindset of any player, and Pacific Islanders are no different. For a lot of us, coming here is the first time we’ve lived away from mum and dad and so we are doing things for the first time, in a different country… it can be really difficult. So the two are interlinked. This area is where ProFifteen can have a huge impact on its clients, making sure that the settling in period is as seamless as possible, and also helping with the communication process between player, club, international teams where applicable, and PRPW, to ensure any problems in the process are ironed out early, before they become big problems that might negatively affect that persons mental health.”

Sam’s approach ensures that the support given off the pitch translates into a win-win for clubs and players alike: “It’s about getting out there to the clubs and letting them know who we are and what we’re about. That we are here to help them to get the best on both sides. If we can do that then we can get better performance from the players and better results for the clubs.