The NRL is more than just an entertainment sport. The rugby league culture in existence in Australia has provided glistening opportunities for young sportsmen from different ethnic backgrounds to achieve an elite athletic career that, in many cases, would not be a viable option in their home nation. Currently, 30% of the NRL’s player population is made up of Pacific Islanders and is ever more reflective of the growing community of islanders who have made Australia their permanent base.
The development of a nurtured island culture and society in Australia for the young players coming through the grades of the game is something which is only recently getting the attention it deserves, largely due to the work of people including former dual international league player Nigel Vagana. As an NRL Education and Welfare Officer, Vagana has been working since his retirement from the game in educating both the industry and its Pacific islander contingent in the importance of understanding and developing the vast islander culture within rugby league. In Darwin for Nesian Pride, a showcase event organised by Sunameke Pacific Island Performance, celebrating the vibrancy and harmony between the many pacific groups in the Top End, Vagana and South Sydney Rabbitohs captain Roy Asotasi (also involved in the Pacific leadership programme), sit down to chat about the pressing issues facing the islander contingent of the NRL.
“For a lot of people, for our coaches and trainers and staff, they haven’t really grown up around pacific people so they don’t understand the cultures and the mentality and everything that goes with it; for a lot of them, they’ve never had to deal with them before so they don’t understand.” Vagana explains, as we talk about the cultural challenges which face both islander rugby players, as well as the Australian staff they work with. “They might struggle a lot more and I know that for a lot of the young guys, if they don’t seem to be getting through to their coach or trainer, they just walk away. So we’ve been doing this [education] for the last couple of years and the clubs have been getting a lot better at it, they understand that with the pacific players, you’ve got to give them the same message but in different ways. I think that over the last couple of years, you’ve seen a lot more players coming through and the numbers have been coming through a lot more consistently than they have done in the past.”
Understandably, when there are cultural barriers in place and the correct avenues of communication aren’t travelled down in the proper ways, there will be clashing and eventual disintegration. The NRL Pacific Studies Cultural Leadership Camp, which Vagana, Asotasi and Nesian Pride organiser Julia Gray each played a part in conducting, addressed these issues and focused on ways in which Pacific Islander players could strengthen the bonds between the player and the club, as well as the club and their respective communities. An eye-opener for the players taking part, the camp emphasised the ‘pasifika’ nature of the project, encompassing not only the Polynesian, but the Melanesian and Micronesian as well. Understanding and educating both staff and players is something Asotasi also supports.
“You’ve got to have an understanding of us as Polynesians, hey? We were saying at the camp that a lot of people, a lot of the trainers think that Polynesians are lazy because they’re not doing this or that, but you’ve got to treat them differently. A perfect example was Joe Galuvao; Donny [Singe] from Manly [Sea Eagles] just said ‘Let Joey do his own thing’ and it’s been showing in the way he’s been playing over the last few seasons; he’s won a premiership with Manly, there was a time where he was the top second rower in the game for Penrith and then he just disappeared for a while and then came back. I think for the trainer, he’s a Maori, he understands how Polynesians work and if you understand us and figure us out, you can unlock our potential.”
This trip to Darwin has seen Vagana, Asotasi and former Gold Coast Titans centre Clinton Toopi visit primary school kids and junior league clubs in delivering talks and having some meet and greets with young fans who may very well continue on to a professional career of their own. Education, according to Vagana, still remains a crucial part in the development of a professional sports career.
“I think a lot of the kids are starting to get the message now. For a lot of the kids, it used to just be, ‘We’ll play sport and I’ll be the hero of the team’, that would be it. They never used to think that education played a part in their success; it teaches you discipline, it teaches you communication, teamwork, respect and all of that stuff that actually helps you make it. We’re just trying to get out there and make sure that they understand that the stuff they learn at school actually helps them; when we have the league boys to come down and have a chat to them, there’s probably more of a chance that they’ll actually listen.”
With the leadership camp earning massive amounts of kudos and support from all corners of the industry, it’s clear that the development of a support network of cultural education and acceptance of and for Pacific Islanders in the NRL is a concept which is only going to continue to evolve.
“The commission has just taken over, so there’s a new governing body that runs the game over here.” Vagana explains. “They’re only just getting established, but one thing that we’ve been pushing for is a continuation of the leadership camps at the beginning of every year. We had ours in January and I think that’s a good time because you want an opportunity in the off-season to understand what’s coming up in the season and the year ahead and also to understand the values that the game wants them to represent and their communities want them to represent. We’re looking at not just another pacific leadership camp, but also one for the indigenous boys and one for the boys from the country; we get a lot of boys from the country who struggle with the changing dynamics of coming into the system. We’re going to help them as well.”
As we wind up the interview, Asotasi explains, quite simply, the only way forward in promoting the project.
“The thing with these leadership camps is that they won’t happen if we don’t do anything; if we all get on board, regardless of what the new independent commission thinks… The players are the voice and if we stand up and be counted, we’ll get more of these camps.”