All Black Malakai Fekitoa cried all the time when he first moved from a remote Tongan Island to New Zealand to pursue his rugby dream.
At games as a teenager he’d see the sidelines filled with family of other players and the emotion would get to him. “I’m here by myself, I didn’t know anyone.”
Eventually he made the big-time but for every Fekitoa there is a young Pacific Island player slugging it out for club teams around the country, surviving on meagre wages, the threat of immigration troubles always hanging over them.
An investigation has found that some clubs are accused of creating bespoke jobs to match overseas players’ CVs, to assure Immigration NZ no local candidates were suitable.
All Blacks and Highlanders player Malakai Fekitoa found it tough assimilating into New Zealand.
New Zealand Rugby declined to comment, saying it was unaware of clubs flouting immigration laws.
Pacific players are becoming increasingly important to New Zealand’s grassroots rugby scene – but there are concerns that players are being exploited.
Fiji sevens coach Ben Ryan, who was coaching his side at the Wellington Sevens this weekend, said agents, some of them not registered, were raiding the islands and not giving young players the full picture.
“A lot of these boys will get a phone call from somewhere in New Zealand saying they want them to come over, and perhaps leave out a few important points. How are they gonna survive on the money that they’ve been given, or the work that they’re doing?
“They’re illegally being paid, and then they normally overstay because these clubs offer trials and say ‘if you can stay a bit longer we’ll give you an extra chance for this or that’.”
Fekitoa’s path to rugby stardom was different: he accepted a scholarship at South Auckland’s Wesley College, after a contract with Australian rugby league clubs fell through due to visa issues.
As well as feeling homesick he was also cold, forced to wear rugby shorts all year round as that was all he had.
Fekitoa said he was too shy to ask for anything else and it was tough. “I used to cry all the time.”
Before he began his rugby career, Australian league clubs were circling, encouraging him to leave school in Tonga and hit the gym.
“They gave me all the gear, the shoes, and all that.”
What got him through the lonely nights at boarding school in New Zealand was the thought of returning to his village with nothing.
“That’s the things about Pacific islanders, they will put you up when you make it, but if not they will put you down.”
He represented Tonga at age-group level but didn’t want to play for the national team.
“To be honest no one really wanted do play for Tonga, when you are that age you are wanting to go and have a better life, wanting to be better, or help your family.”