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Tonga Rugby​ and TRU broke and broken

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Inoke Afeaki

By 'Inoke Afeaki

Throughout the world keeping political interference out of sport is explicitly written into the good Constitutions of sports bodies and their regulators. ​Tonga Rugby​ is no exception, but for the past two and a half years I have observed the intertwining of the ​TRU Leadership,​ in its quest for financial gain and personal advantage, and a ​political party​ in its quest to capture votes.

The responses of the other main stakeholders, the ​clubs, World Rugby ​and the government ​are varied but all have, to date, failed to put a stop to the perceived manipulation and illegalities, and the ineptitude of the leadership.

The four main stakeholders, while passionate, are confused as to their respective roles but all endeavour to fill the gaps left by the leadership. But this confusion, ironically, has allowed that leadership to prosper and continue. The result is ​that Tonga Rugby​ and the ​Tonga Rugby Union​ are not only broke but also broken.

This is ​not hard to fix. New self awareness of the respective roles of each stakeholder can lead the way forward to a Rugby Union, which is principled and centred around good governance.

Tonga Rugby Union

The Tonga Rugby Union has 82 clubs divided among four sub-unions. Vava’u, Ha’apai and Eua Rugby Unions are regarded as the outer islands and hold about 20 percent of the rugby population. The fourth sub-union is the Tongatapu Rugby Union that holds 80% of the rugby population. There is a Women’s Competition on the main island of Tongatapu. There is a healthy College/High School Competition; the Primary School/Grassroots Programme has just been commissioned by Tongatapu Rugby Sub-Union, which is wonderful news.

If you ask rugby board members from any club, coaches or the rugby volunteers if they had assistance from TRU, most will say that they had little help or worse still, they encountered resistance to carry out their programmes. This has been an issue for women’s rugby in Tonga for many years. Rugby in Tonga, in essence, is being run by a leadership out of touch with its rugby base. Clubs often organise ad-hoc competitions to supplement what TRU provide in Tonga as there is little direction or funding from TRU.

A similar issue happens with the Tonga National Team, the 'Ikale Tahi. Funding for test matches and tournament preparations are beelined from World Rugby to the national 'Ikale Tahi team, bypassing the TRU. World Rugby are liaising directly with the 'Ikale Tahi management and coach, which is the Job of the TRU ICEO - who only puts the TRU stamp on the transaction for acknowledgement.

So what is TRU doing? That is a good question. TRU immediately after the 2015 and 2019 RWC should have shared a comprehensive Strategic and Operations Plan of how it will generate its budget to get this all done.

Unfortunately, since 2015 our TRU has struggled and failed every year to hold a proper AGM.

Tonga’s previous Prime Minister Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva was a champion for the democracy movement in Tonga for over three decades. He did not need the TRU President role to win votes, our people loved him without buying into the Rugby Union gimmick, but somehow it became a party strategy to take over Rugby Union and Rugby League. The unfortunate side effect of choosing this strategy, broke its own political party values of transparency, fairness and allowed little to no checks on abuse by those in the TRU leadership. The vision of what democracy could bring for Tonga was not looking very fair.

TRU Representatives

The TRU Board and votes are made up of three sub-union representatives from the outer islands Vava’u, Ha'apai and Eua Islands. Tongatapu Island is split into five zones with five votes each, the Government Rep has a vote, and a vote each for the Vice-President and President. There are two more on the TRU board, firstly the WR Observer and the TRU CEO, both are non-voting members. There are nine votes and the quorum for meetings is six.

At the AGM the collective votes are made by the nine board members and the Assembly:

  • + 5 Vahe Kolomotu'a Reps
  • + 5 Vahe Kolofo’ou Reps
  • + 5 Vahe Loto Reps
  • + 5 Vahe Hihifo Reps
  • + 5 Vahe Hahake Reps
  • + 4 Vava'u Reps
  • + 2 Ha'apai Reps
  • + 2 Eua Reps
  • + Women's Rugby Union
  • + Schools/College/High School Representative
  • + Ex 'Ikale Tahi Players Representative
  • + Life Member Representative

Post 2015 RWC Fe'ao Vunipola was voted in as Interim TRU President to fill a void left by the surprise departure of then TRU President ‘Epeli Taione. Since then TRU has not held a proper AGM. The Financial Audits have not been done for four years. TRU fired the Interim CEO. According to TRU Board Members, the late Prime Minister Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva was voted in as President and Fe'ao Vunipola as Vice-President; while Fe’ao assumed the Chair role and Interim CEO role, without due process.

The call for a Judicial Hearing on allegations of multiple breaches of the TRU Constitution has been repeatedly removed from the agenda items.

It was ‘Akilisi Pohiva, as Chairperson, who clearly made in a promise to the TRU Assembly in a December 2018 Special General Meeting that Fe’ao would face a Judiciary Hearing.

There was clearly no TRU AGM done for 2018. I am certain that there is no provision in the TRU Constitution to skip AGMs in 2014 to 2019 period.

Professional era

Over the last three decades TRU has had a bumpy transition in the professional era while trying to maintain the fast and vast developments of the game. The reality is that the Tonga Rugby Board room representatives have drifted further away from the modern games demands, compared to the other Rugby Unions in the top 30 countries. Our board members lack the key rugby expertise and business acumen that they desperately need to create the environment for rugby to grow domestically and to be internationally competitive. A Selection Policy to choose strong board members needs to be adopted to help decide who leads our national sport in this professional era.

I have picked up on the subtle movements that had a clear pattern. As I arrived in Tonga in 2017 the previous TRU Interim CEO successfully sued the TRU for wrongful dismissal. The TRU was also taken to court because the voting of the Prime Minister and Fe’ao into their roles of President and Vice-President was not done as per the TRU Constitution. They were both quickly voted back with the help of the outer island board representatives. There is a constant rabid fight to hold onto the roles of TRU President, VP, Chairperson and CEO by Fe’ao and the PTOA political party.

I see a political party, in this case PTOA, being convinced that controlling the Tonga Rugby Union will influence voters in the national elections.

Fe’ao Vunipola found himself, accidently, as the TRU Interim President with no real ability to run a Rugby Union, but he managed to convince the late PM Pohiva that he could muster the rugby population to vote for his political party.

The added bonus for Fe’ao is TRU’s access to government funds, which saves him finding sponsors or employing more TRU staff as the government workers can do TRU’s work. Along with this came disgruntled government workers being forced to do TRU’s work. TRU’s grants from the government were consistently exhausted and more money being asked to feed the monster. I knew the PM was upset with Fe’ao but he acted in a way to protect his perceived voting base. Fe'ao would have finally realised the belief the PM had in him and taken advantage.

The late Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva and Fe'ao Vunipola at Teufaiva Stadium, Nuku'alofa. 22 November 2017.

Meanwhile, those that helped vote Fe’ao into office, might find themselves lucky enough to get a trip to World Rugby meetings that should be only for Rugby Union’s CEOs and Presidents.

Let's face it, our TRU model is quite simple: there is no accountability, no measurable strategic plan to move the sport forward. There is, instead, a simple cycle of Rugby Union votes to keep in place a politically aligned person, who propagates a belief to his political party that controlling Rugby will ensure more votes for their candidates at the national elections. This relationship has given the TRU easy access to money, that the government will then do the financial statements for, and write it off.

Is it because those that voted to keep Fe'ao Vunipola and his preferred political party running the TRU have a chance of a fully paid trip to a major city staying at a 5 star hotel?

The Strategic Planning and Good Governance Policies can be quickly hashed together with no real thought, which I am sure World Rugby will have taken note of.

Move sport forward

How do we change that?

Simple. Vet those applying to be on the TRU Board to have some objective measures to check if they are genuine candidates and their suitability to move the sport forward.

After anyone becomes a board member or an employee, make sure everyone reads the Tonga Rugby Union’s Governance Manual, which quite explicitly states the virtues and processes needed, and measure the progress of the TRU operations with regular meetings to stay on track. World Rugby already does this with the workers they attach to Rugby Unions like Tonga but, that doesn’t seem to be building our capacity here fast enough and it quickly regresses back to where it started without World Rugby's presence.

It is definitely due to the current environment that we have created for ourselves, the corruption cycle is completed. Our opportunistic brothers in Rugby don’t care about it because no one will stop them. I know TRU has a good Operations Manual, however someone has not shared it with those coming on board.

We need World Rugby or a party with the permission from WR to be the watchdog to guard its values and processes that fosters the behaviour of good governance here in Tonga and other countries that suffer from the same downward spiral. Good governance can be measured, we need to agree on a process that is efficiently done and is resilient to abuse.

I hope by sharing my experience it may bring more awareness of what is actually happening to Rugby Union in Tonga.

May it better guide decision making by those that are voting members of TRU.

Finally it highlights the nature of those that are using a sport for their own political agendas.

'Inoke Afeaki is a  Former 'Ikale Tahi Captain 2001 - 2003; Pacific Islands Rugby Alliance Captain 2004; 'Ikale Tahi 1995 - 2007, with three RWCs in 1995, 2003 and 2007.