How to deal with pushy player agents

Pasifika athletes are being encouraged to seek advice before signing contracts with player agents.

Former NRL and Super Rugby player Tupou Sopoaga last month tweeted that two Pasifika players in his club rugby team, who had just come off the back of playing in the Super Rugby Aotearoa Under  20s competition, were feeling stressed after agents had approached them and pressured them to sign on the dotted line. 

He said players were excited to have the "world at their feet" but, at the same time, were unsure about how to navigate their careers.

"It's been happening for years at the end of the day, where Pacific Island kids are getting hamstrung to sign with a specific agent because they've mentioned their pipeline of players they've got, or they've mentioned career opportunities for them," he said. 

"One of them actually tried to get him to sign on the spot too, so it's pretty sad to hear, when these are kids at the end of the day, young Pacific Island kids, who don't really know what the right decision is."

Pacific Rugby Players Chairman, Hale T-Pole, said it was a problem they dealt with all the time. 

"We go through this 24-7 and it's a touchy subject, it's a nightmare to deal with worldwide, especially with kids and especially our players from [the] islands," he said.  

"We're [Pacific Rugby Players] trying to educate our players as well...because we've come across situations we need to solve where one of the kids have signed three contracts, and that will come down to not understanding and not seeking any advice."

Sopoaga signed a contract with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs during his last year of high school in 2010, after being approached by an NRL agent following a New Zealand Schools tournament. 

He was given two weeks to make a decision that would affect the rest of his life. 

"After that tournament an NRL agent literally came to my house, just knocked on my door, and then had a conversation with my parents," he said.

"I think it was like two weeks to decide, and then I just decided to go with them because I just thought it was right for me financially. My parents were pretty fresh at the time too so they just thought that's a good deal, and then after my last exam I headed over to the Bulldogs." 

His older brother, former All Black Lima Sopoaga, had started making a name for himself on the rugby scene, but there was no one in the NRL space he could turn to for advice, Tupou added. 

"I definitely felt like I was pressured...I wouldn't change any of the decisions I made because I've been able to do some pretty cool things, play in the NRL, go to World Cups, but definitely at the time, I was pretty young to make those decisions [and] I didn't really have anyone else that was already there."

T-Pole was recruited at 18-years-old when he moved from Tonga to finish his final year of high school in New Zealand. He was offered a scholarship to Japan at the same time but opted to take up another offer at Welsey College in South Auckland, where Jonah Lomu first made his name as a teenage rugby star.

Like Sopoaga, T-Pole said there was no support for him when making his way into the professional ranks. 

"Even straight out of school from Wesley to come down to Otago..we got invited, they watched myself and Seilala Mapusua play for Wesley and then invited us the next week to watch [a game]. We went into the team hotel, shook hands with the team manager and away we went."

The future Highlanders teammates returned to Dunedin ready to play in January the following year. 

"I don't think agents were big at that time, 1999. I had my first agent in 2001 when they started coming out, started academies and there were workshops once a month to educate you on why it's important to have agents to represent you, but I didn't really have anyone to help out earlier on in my career."

T-Pole said he found the majority of New Zealand based agents were good to deal with, but it was still frustrating and concerning to hear of the odd rogue "cowboy" agents, who do not follow proper procedures. 

The former 'Ikale Tahi loose forward encouraged players to seek advice within their Pasifika and rugby communities.

"My advice is I'm here, Pacific Rugby Players is here, there's some good people at the New Zealand Rugby Players Association.

"...every island kid will somehow connect to a player that is respected by the agent, so make those connections, sometimes it's as simple as reaching out."

Moving forward he hoped education around agencies and player agents can be provided through school systems, so that players and families feel more confident when making life-changing decisions. 

"The first fifteen coaches, they're one of the key members in this as well, because when they leave school they still respect and listen to their first fifteen coach so they go back to them for a lot of things."

Tupou Sopoaga said it was a collective responsibility which needed to be in the best interests of the player and their family. 

"Player agents definitely have a great place [in] the game. I think with kids at the moment, you just need to educate yourself and also be aware of young cowboys who are trying to find their 'gem' to make it big for their own agency or whatnot."

"It's important to talk to people who can help make the decision a lot easier for them and ultimately it can help them choose the agency that's going to work best for them and their future."

His team-mates have been "doing their due diligence" in recent weeks and are yet to sign a contract, but are expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.