ENGLAND’S World Cup opener is destined to be a rich-versus-poor mis-match, as opponents Tonga are having to cope without up to 20 leading players who could not afford to take part in the tournament.
The Pool C fixture in Sapporo on Sunday will symbolise the financial gulf between competing nations here in the Far East. Eddie Jones’s squad are the best-paid in their sport – earning a basic £25,000 every time they play a Test.
Their Pacific island opponents believe they are on the lowest wages among the 20 teams taking part in the global showpiece, and head coach Toutai Kefu revealed that a large number of key men made themselves unavailable, in order to protect vital club contracts.
Toutai Kefu understands his players' decision to withdraw from the game against England
‘It is one of the biggest challenges we face as a Tier 2 nation,’ he told Sportsmail yesterday, as the Tonga squad prepared to fly to Sapporo. ‘I would say 15 to 20 players made themselves unavailable. We can’t pay our players much. My players are paid about $600 a week while they’re here at the World Cup. We’re playing against probably the No 1 country in the world in terms of resources and budget. Our budget is at the other end of the spectrum.
‘As a coach, I leave it up to the player, whether they come or not, because they all have families to support. There are players who aren’t here, but we move forward and concentrate on the players that we have.’
In theory, regulation 9 governing player release should allow countries to pick all eligible players for a World Cup, but the reality is that European clubs put contractual pressure on players from Tier 2 teams to turn their back on national service. It is a major problem for Tonga and the other ‘minnows’ here, as they cannot offer sufficient financial inducements to put their best side out.
It is hard enough just being able to fund a campaign at all and they rely on the global governing body to make that happen. ‘World Rugby have been fantastic,’ said Kefu. ‘We are 100 per cent dependent on them for funds. We don’t get any other funding from sponsorship or anything like that, but I’ve been able to secure the coaches that I need.’
Tonga players like Malietoa Hingano will earn just £500 a week while they're at the World Cup
Tonga are currently 15th in the world rankings and earlier this month