The Oval Football.
Rugby League in the Pacific Ocean
The recent Matty Johns strategy piece was an endeavour to slow the exodus of players of the Pacific nations whilst enabling them to be a part of the growth of the game in Oceania.
It prompted me to write this article.
The last time I was in Fiji I paid homage to Apisai Toga’s grave in the village of Sanaa. The Apisia Oval was built and paid for by the villagers and I went there to pay my respects.
Apisai was at Saint George (1972), followed by his brother Inosai, then Noa Nadruka at Raiders. They were extremely exciting players to watch and added much to their club’s culture, the game of rugby league, and to the fans.
John Fifita became the 1st Tongan. St George’s coach at the time, Roy Masters, said that he was the 50th player graded, meaning the last.
In 1996 I signed Marcus Bai to Gold Coast Chargers, the 1st New Papua New Guinea player to play in the then ARL. He went on to play for the Melbourne Storm in NRL.
The World Bank’s Pacific Island member countries records that the Pacific islands have a combined population of about 2.3 million people spread across the unique and diverse region made up of hundreds of islands scattered over an area of 15% of the earth’s surface.
Excluding PNG, there is a great diversity in the Pacific region, with Fiji the largest country of the group with a population of over 900,000 and reducing in size to Tuvalu and Nauru with estimated population of 11,000, each making them the World Bank groups smallest members by population. Kiribati is one of the most remote and geographically dispersed nations in the world, consisting of 33 coral atolls spread over 3.5 million square kilometres – an area larger than India.
Pacific island countries have substantial natural resources. They are also rich in cultural diversity and are increasing their trade and digital links with global markets. However, they are remote economies, comparatively small, with limited natural resources and narrow based economies. They are physically detached from major markets, with small populations spread across many islands and are vulnerable to external shocks such as Covid-19 which has the capacity to affect economic growth and create economic volatility.
Rugby League, World Rugby and NFL with the Oval Football.
The NRL has 480 registered players +96 Development athletes as of 2021. This will increase to 510 in 2023. It is now accepted that more than 50% of those 480 are from the Pacific Oceans Island countries. NRL pathways and those responsible for identifying talent and the development of same remains at the highest level.
Duty of Care safeguarding is a shared responsibility for physical and emotional safety of players. NRL Wellbeing and Education manager, Paul Heptonstall heads an excellent program.
The NRL and its clubs have well defined NRL Welfare programmes and strategies in particular those relating to developing purposeful careers beyond rugby league.
The rugby league industry must continue to promote education and empower women and negotiate strategic relationships.
Connected to this goal is to increase the opportunities for Pacifica players and people for employment in rugby league is includes Coaching, Administration, Training, Marketing, and Strategy. As author with my associates, we are adding Media to this list. 8 Of the 16 clubs have a Pacific person working in Wellbeing with the players and the NRL Head Office has two staff members in Wellbeing
The two major International Rugby League professional competitions are the NRL, and Super League and it is here that the majority of players wishing to represent homeland or heritage are governed by laws relating to heritage initiated by the International Rugby League (IRL).
Expansion remains an agenda item thus the future strategies to retain players of the Pacific Islands to Rugby League and Asia short and long term should be a priority. To achieve continuity and sustainability then players should be afforded the opportunity through education to enjoy the choice of a ‘whole of game’ experience. The next document will detail how those small nations of Oceania an develop within a growing world sport, rugby league.
The excellent ‘Oceans Apart’ documentary regarding the oval ball games of the Pacific is a production by Dan Leo which directly relates the game of rugby. It looks at the Pacific Island culture and tries to get an understanding of players beliefs, how they think, and play the game. We cannot relate to the players inner selves but his message in ‘Oceans Apart’ is strong in the need for them to believe that Rugby will never leave them behind. It is also an NRL policy to ensure the same applies to rugby league.
Nikkei Asia recently printed figures from the international Rugby Players Association that 630 of the world professional rugby union players are from the Pacific… surprisingly high percentage given only 3.4million people live in the Pacific region between Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand.
Rob Ruck an historian of sport at the University of Pittsburgh writes that
‘In just a few decades the sons of Samoa and Tonga, mostly young men who came of age in the States, have quietly become the most disproportionately overrepresented demographics of college and professional football providing 4% of the total players in the NFL.
Player remittances and GDP
Remittances from players of the three oval ball codes to their homelands is a significant factor when looking at gross domestic product of some of the Oceania nations. These important sources of funds are generated for the major Oceania rugby league nations (excluding PNG) being Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga, which have a combined population of just over 1.1 million. One has to appreciate the importance of cultural heritage and family to understand the value of player remittances generated from living abroad, that is reported by World Bank to be as high as 20% of GDP of some of the smaller nations.
In 1996 I went to Samoa to on behalf of the Chargers to sign a young athlete whose name was Richard Tavita. His family presented me with a ‘Talking Stick’. The Father was then authorising me to speak on his behalf if Richard did not deliver on his cultural heritage expectations. Unfortunately, the super league war began, and we were unable to initiate programs that would take Richard to the next level. I didn’t have to use the Talking Stick.
I have found Samoans and Tongans in their rugby league prowess to be a story that emphasises loyalty to each other, and a passion to succeed. One should not forget history, for after all, they were combative people who fought over titles, land and honour.
We are all scattered north and south of the Pacific in a world now recognised more often as Oceania. Some of us are islands, some atolls, one is a continent, but all speak the universal language of sport and in the Pacific the dialect that connects us is Rugby League.
NOT YET THIS IS NEXT >
ASIA is not a bridge
The documents so far give an overall picture of the three international oval ball sports and their position in ‘Oceania. Australia is the most diverse cultural nation with a population of 25 million, taken up by seven a half million not born in Australian plus the first generation of that group.
Formation of an Asian Rugby League Community strategy to engage with that 10 million at every level would move it to an agenda item. From participation, viewing, or attending games, involvement by engagement with the game, will do much to bring together all Australians.