EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Manu Samoa captain Daniel Leo chats to Sport24

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Samoa's Daniel Leo wins a lineout during the Incoming Tour match against Italy at Mbombela Stadium on 15 June 2013. (Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images)
Samoa's Daniel Leo wins a lineout during the Incoming Tour match against Italy at Mbombela Stadium on 15 June 2013. (Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images)
  • Former Samoa skipper Daniel Leo talks about the powerful Oceans Apart documentary which unpacks the plight of the Pacific Island nations and why their story had to be heard.
  • He assesses South Africa's Super Rugby exit and what the implications of moving north will mean for the men from the Rainbow nation and, in turn, how it will impact New Zealand.
  • He also recounts his most memorable clashes with the Springboks and reveals which lock forward he believes is even better than World Cup-winning second-rower Eben Etzebeth.

Sport24 asked: What inspired the Oceans Apart documentary?

Daniel Leo: The plight of the Pacific nations has probably been one of rugby’s biggest skeletons in the closet. However, skeletons don’t stay in the closet forever and they were always going to come out. Traditionally in our culture we don’t question authority, so that was a bit of a hoodoo which needed to be broken. We decided to deal with this now and push for positive change. We didn’t want to wait another 25 years and pass the buck onto the next generation. I was coming towards the end of my career, so it was a logical time for me to speak out. I was never the best player in a Samoan jersey but hopefully what I’m doing off the field can be of much more value to the development of the game and our island as opposed to anything I could do on-field. I’m no martyr but needed to create awareness. What was happening in the islands, and definitely Samoa, wasn’t matching some of the basic prerequisites for success on a high-end scale at professional level. Something needed to change and for us it was about raising awareness. The objective was two-fold: there were things in our governance structures that needed addressing as well as external factors. When making the documentary we saw it as two-pronged and couldn’t tackle one without the other. We addressed the issues at World Rugby which were detrimental to our collective cause but had to look introspectively as well and get to grips with some of the cultural issues which have held us back.

Sport24 asked: Is there a follow-up documentary in the works?

Daniel Leo: We are about to embark on the sequel - Oceans Apart 2 - for which we are in the proposal stage. Because Oceans Apart has been so well-received - the film had 50 000 views in the first week of being made available in the UK - many of the relevant organisations know that they can’t ignore us anymore. We’re not going away and if anything our voice will only get stronger and louder. However, we are looking at doing it in a way that is more collaborative with World Rugby where we give them more of a chance to make some positive changes and we can actually document those. We can say: “Look, this is what happened and these are the issues which we highlighted in Oceans Apart 1 and now here’s your opportunity to make a difference and we’ll document that. We want to go to the world and show them you are an organisation that wants to see these changes come through.” We have had steady communication with Alan Gilpin, who took over from Brett Gosper as World Rugby interim CEO. We are also building some bridges with our unions. We needed to confront some issues but now it’s about working collaboratively with them in order to actually try to bring forward the changes that are needed for us to all advance in the game.

Sport24 asked: How do the Pacific Island nations move forward?

Daniel Leo: I just don’t think World Rugby know what to do with us because we aren’t ever going to generate them any money and, if their ultimate goal is the bottom line, we are never going to meet those standards. At the heart of Oceans Apart is the need to realign the modern game with the amateur ethos and values. Since Nelson Mandela handed the World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar in 1995 they have been lost when the game went professional. It signified the turning point in the game and, for us as Pacific Islanders, nothing has changed. If anything since professionalism it has got worse for us. In the late ‘90s we were competing with top teams and even until 2003, Samoa could turn up to a World Cup in the hope of beating a big team. However, it’s getting harder and harder to pull the rabbit out of the hat because we are just getting left behind. It’s great to see other minnow countries like Argentina and Japan come through but they have their own professional competitions with huge monetary value in terms of the revenue they command from broadcasters.

Sport24 asked: Your take on maladministration within SA rugby circles?

Daniel Leo: I know the Springboks are world champions but the reality is that what’s transpired in the Pacific Islands could happen to anyone. If South Africa sits on its laurels from an administrative perspective, pretty soon they could be in the firing line if they don’t get their act together. I hadn’t heard about it (the off-field turmoil at Western Province) but it doesn’t surprise me because there is a lot of it in rugby. When it comes to professional rugby we need to judge the administrators as tough as we judge the players and coaches. For us to keep moving forward as a sport, it’s really important that we don’t simply look at the top and bottom of the pyramid but at the middle as well.

Sport24 asked: What do you make of South Africa’s Super Rugby exit?

Daniel Leo: I think the writing was on the wall as many as five or six years ago. It was like the Super Rugby organisers were flogging a dead horse by bringing in sides from Argentina and Japan. They were constantly trying to expand it into something it was never going to be. It probably was inevitable to a certain extent that the South African teams would move north. I see it as a good all-round move for South African rugby. If the move happened 10 or 15 years ago it might have been a step down in playing standard for the South Africans but that is no longer the case. The standard of European rugby is right up there and if anything it will probably suit the South Africans more. If anyone will lose out by South Africa’s defection it will be the New Zealand teams. The latter’s concern will be that they are set to play week-in and week-out against the Australians and Pacific Islanders. It will be great for some of their open rugby but in terms of the tight stuff they really test themselves against the South Africans. Building the physical aspect of the game is so important these days and, without the South African teams in the mix, it will be instructive to see how they keep their levels up because you need competition. For me, an interesting aspect from the Super Rugby split is where New Zealand goes from here? I’m not concerned about South Africa - I think they will go from strength to strength. It’s the Kiwis that will be worried... The South African teams’ departure has opened up an opportunity for the Pacific Island sides to come into Super Rugby and fill that vacuum. We’ve got a proper job to step up and fill those shoes because they are big. The one thing South Africa brought to the competition, apart from their incredible talent, was a huge market audience. There are now at least pathways for Pacific players but still questions that need to asked.

Sport24 asked: What are your memories of facing the Springboks?

Daniel Leo: As a second-row forward I relished those Tests because I was playing against the guys in my position who were hands-down the best in the world - Danie Rossouw, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. I was overawed each time I took the field but I had to play down those emotions. I played for Samoa against South Africa on four occasions and am disappointed we never beat them. We lost narrowly at the 2011 World Cup (the Springboks won 13-5) and that one hurt because we felt like we got a bit closer. We had a try disallowed and it could have been anyone’s game. We came to South Africa in 2013 off the back of good form having beaten Italy and Scotland but the Springboks thrashed us. What I always knew was that there were never any easy games against the Springboks and I will miss those encounters. The Boks were absolute beasts on the field but gentlemen off it. Post-match we connected with the South Africans on a spiritual level. We smashed each other for 80 minutes and afterwards thanked god for the opportunity to do it. It was fantastic to form a circle and pray together. We had a few beers with the boys as well but usually after a game against the Springboks I was so tired that one or two beers usually put me straight to sleep! I would be sore and dehydrated but facing off against the Springboks were some of my favourite memories in the game.

Sport24 asked: Will the Boks be worried ahead of the Lions series?

Daniel Leo: I wouldn’t be concerned. They have enough guys who know where they need to be coupled with the confidence and experience coming off their World Cup victory. They know that when they are on the money they can beat anyone on their day. By my estimations 60% of the England team which the Boks beat quite comfortably will form part of the British and Irish Lions squad. The Springboks will be a little bit rusty having not played a Test since the 2019 World Cup final but they have the game plan. Let’s just hope that the Lions series still happens. It would be sad to see the tour not go ahead because it’s an important part of the rugby calendar and such a link to tradition. In terms of where the series is hosted, making sense financially for SA Rugby has got to be the key because Lions series bring a lot to the Sanzaar unions. It would be a shame if the South African public aren’t able to see the tour in their stadiums and, to be honest, I’d like to see the series be postponed until we can host it in South Africa to boost the economy and enhance fan experience.

Sport24 asked: Who do you rate as the top three locks today?

Daniel Leo: You can never go past Brodie Retallick and he would be at the top of my list. He is the best because he is next level. Maro Itoje and Eben Etzebeth are probably on par but it’s a very close second and third for me. Those three guys could be equally comfortable as bodybuilders or basketballers. The skill-set these days has elevated and even at the peak of my career 10 years ago, all you had to do to be a good lock was catch in the lineout and hit rucks hard. Nowadays you’ve got to have a whole lot more. You need to be able to jackal, carry, distribute and play for 80 minutes. In the modern game the locks can play in the backrow and we have seen it with Etzebeth and Itoje. That was never a consideration when I was playing but full credit to those guys for their versatility as athletes. I was lucky enough to play against two of those three during my career. Thank God I never played against Retallick because I reckon that he would’ve made me look like an absolute little girl!

Check out the preview for ‘Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal & Pacific Rugby’, a documentary put together by Pacific Rugby Player Welfare, at this link: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/oceansapart

Previous chats:

Tera Mtembu

Heyneke Meyer

Ernst Joubert

Gurthro Steenkamp

Dylan des Fountain

Andries Strauss

Juandre Kruger

Ryan Kankowski

Josh Strauss

Ross Skeate

Brad Barritt

Casey Laulala

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