The fate of Tonga Rugby Union on the brink

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Tonga's rugby union team, 'Ikaletahi

By Kalafi Moala

 

September 29, 2020: It is not unusual for a governing sport’s body in Tonga to experience difficulties, mostly due to poor leadership and absence of good financial administration, but the lack of fulfilling compliance requirements from the World Rugby Board for quite some time did threaten to bankrupt Tonga Rugby and demote the Ikaletahi to a Tier 3 team.

The Joint Management Committee (JMC) is an arrangement where the three bodies of Tonga Rugby Union (TRU), Government of Tonga, and World Rugby (WR) would each share 1/3 of the funding responsibilities. World Rugby and Government handed TRU an agreement in which TRU must comply with compliance requirements otherwise there would be dire consequences.

The agreement that was to be signed by TRU, Government of Tonga, and World Rugby, is referred to as the TPA (Tri-Partite Agreement).

If the Tonga Rugby Union did not sign the TPA agreement by Friday 25 September, the World Rugby Board would have suspended funding as well as relegate Tonga to a Tier 3 team. This would have been disastrous for Tonga’s longest standing and most popular sport.

The withholding of funds would have been a huge financial setback. And the demotion to Tier 3 would have been embarrassing, and a serious damaging injury to the proud aspirations of many Tongan youth.

In this current lucrative professional era of sports, this would have made a significant difference in Tonga’s economy. Tonga is still yet to come to grips with the fact that sports development is a major contributor to the development of the economy.

But despite much public debate, and a lot of finger pointing among the local board and the administration, Siaosi Pohiva, as President may have saved Tonga Rugby by signing the TPA; Tonga agreeing to carry out all the compliance requirements of the Board, and the Board on its part would not only release the funding due Tonga, but also keep the Tonga team in Tier 2.

TRU President, Siaosi Pohiva

Deciding Tonga Rugby’s fate could have simply been a matter for the Board to do what they should have done over the past few years, and to complete all the compliance issues which included producing audited financial reports.

Siaosi Pohiva, MP and President of TRU, told this reporter that he had intended to resign from his position as President but decided to hold it off and go ahead with the signing of the TPA to save Tonga Rugby.  He signed the TPA on Friday 25 September 2020.

About 300,000 Euros is donated annually by World Rugby to TRU. That is the equivalent of about US$350,000 or over $700,000 Tongan pa’anga.

Mr. Pohiva has only been President since late 2019, taking over from his father the late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, after his death.

The election of Mr. Pohiva as President was carried out in the last AGM of Tonga Rugby, an election that has been disputed by many as the AGM did not have a quorum to be legal, according to the organization’s constitution.

With no audited financial reports and many alleged bizarre decisions that did not constitute good governance principles, as well as bad blood among members of TRU, coaching staff, and others, TRU was heading fast toward oblivion. And it may still be even though getting funding has never been able to resolve the relational and administrative problems of the sporting organization.

Heads needed to roll, and changes needed to take place in the leaders’ mentality and attitude, one TRU member laments. “The problem with doing auditing is that there were no financial records to be audited,” he said.

The person at the centre of the TRU controversy and organizational mess is former ‘Ikale Tahi captain Fe’ao Vunipola of the famous rugby family, with three generations of top rugby players, starting with his father Sione Vunipola, and continuing with himself, and his sons Mako and Billy Vunipola, of the English team.

Mr. Vunipola is accused of making inappropriate dictatorial decisions, disorganization, and mismanagement, as well as a “no care” attitude about input of others in TRU. He is the one that has overseen the office of TRU since 2015.

Efforts to speak with Mr. Vunipola did not materialize, but both his friends and opponents agreed that he was responsible for most of the problems experienced by the Union. When funds stopped coming in, there were no more wages paid out, and the office had to shut down.

Ikale Tahi Coach Toutai Kefu finished his contract in December. He is now coaching another team overseas. It is reported Mr. Vunipola did not get along with him.

Fe’ao Vunipola is reported not to have been keen on the signing of the TPA. He says that TRU “will be blessed from heaven” if WR withhold funding. However, Bruce Cook, CEO of Oceania Rugby Union delivered a three-point mandate to Tonga Rugby Union on behalf of WR.

TRU must sign the TPA before the 25 September deadline; they must form the JMC committee and WR will find an independent person to be chair; and also, the post of CEO must be advertised as soon as possible. JMC was to be the panel of selection, and WR will provide funding for high performance development among other things.

But what is TRU? And what is the process of selection in place? How did Tonga Rugby get to this place of shameful self-dismantling? The results on the field have not been that great either.

The little rugby country that is still proud of victories in years past against the Maori All Blacks, the Fijians and Samoans, and in 1973, the Australian Wallabies, can’t even remember the last time Ikale Tahi beat Japan; and having a hard time beating non-rugby countries like Kenya, Belarus, and Georgia.

The problem, according to long time Tongatapu rugby administrator, Filo ‘Akau’ola started with the constitution of 2013, in which so much power was given to whoever was President of the TRU. “The President would make executive decisions that was completely dictatorial and usually went unchallenged because it was constitutional,” he said.

“In 2015, we tried to amend the constitution but were not successful,” Mr. ‘Akau’ola said. “As a result, TRU continued to operate based on the 2013 constitution. The late Prime Minister was elected President, but he was only a figurehead. Fe’ao Vunipola who was Deputy President ran TRU under the PM, and he was also CEO.”

It was in 2012 that the Tonga Rugby Union was established. Previously in 2010 the Tonga Rugby Union Authority was set up to help with aspects of the rugby administration until TRU was set up.

The unions from all over Tonga are involved in the selection of members to TRU, including the Selection of President and all the other office holders. In the Tongatapu sub-union, for example, the President is Manu Mataele; Secretary is Siaosi Faka’osi. Other members are representatives of rural and town districts; Maluafisi Falekaono for rural, and ‘Aisea ‘Aholelei for town district.

There are three selected from Tongatapu sub-union to be part of TRU; three from Vava’u, two from Ha’apai, and one from ‘Eua. That comprises 9 officers selected from the sub-unions of Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai, and ‘Eua to form the TRU Board members.

But what is becoming more apparent is that Tonga Rugby Union needs more than money and a new system of governance. It desperately needs good leadership without which there may still be unresolved problems that continue to hamper progress and development to a better level of performance.

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