The group advocating for Pasifika in rugby – and not just on the field

Rugby great Michael Jones and former Black Ferns captain Seiuli Fiao’o Fa’amausili are among the big names on the new NZ Rugby panel. So what are they trying to achieve?

When Graham Henry was coaching Auckland in the early 1990s he made a decision: no more relying solely on former All Blacks, many of whom were reaching retirement age. Instead, he launched a plan to uncover a new generation of exciting players. “Many of those fresh, young players were Pasifika,” says Saveatama Eroni Clarke, who was on the team at the time. “But the thing about Henry at the time was that he had a one-style-fits-all approach to coaching.” Henry was known for shouting, barking orders and swearing at players to motivate them, but he didn’t realize how his aggressiveness was negatively affecting the Pasifika members of the team.

“Henry started to notice that the boys weren’t doing the plays successfully that he’d seen them do on the field on previous occasions, and became frustrated,” Clarke says. Then he started dropping them.

It wasn’t a sustainable way of approaching his role, Henry soon realized. He consulted with Clarke and Savae La’auli Sir Michael Jones on how he could get the best out of his Pasifika players. “We started to explain to him that when he shouts and swears at the boys, they’re thinking, ‘what have I done now?’ and ‘my coach doesn’t like me’,” Clarke explains.

“Pasifika people also hold a lot of external pressures and responsibilities to their families, so having their coach swear at them hinders their confidence to express themselves on the field.”

Henry’s entire coaching philosophy and approach to nurturing Pasifika talent was transformed, and Clarke’s admiration for him grew and grew. As Henry built loyalty and trust with the players he noticed that the team atmosphere rapidly improved. “His cultural responsiveness lifted the game to a whole new level,” says Clarke. “This is what the members of the Pasifika Advisory Group hope to continue to do for our community.”

Ted. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Formed in 2021, the NZ Rugby advisory group has a big job ahead. Its remit includes engaging with Pasifika communities, building NZ Rugby’s cultural competence, creating career pathways on and off the field, and ensuring there’s a Pasifika voice in the organisation’s decision-making. Every year, Pasifika players are selected for not only the All Blacks, but also the Black Ferns, Super Rugby and provincial teams. “In the All Blacks, 50% are Pasifika and in the Black Ferns, there are more, with around 70% Pacific contribution,” Clarke says. “So establishing this group is a response to the growing numbers of Pasifika in the game in Aotearoa.”

The group originally elected co-chairs Pauline-Jean Luyten, who is of Tongan descent, and Tauanu’u Nick Bakulich, a Sāmoan-New Zealander. Last month, however, Luyten was appointed to the NZ Rugby board as its emerging director – the first Pasifika woman to take on the role. Her move has left a vacancy on the group, which includes Maualaivao Jack Kirifi, Pakilau o Aotearoa Manase Lua, Eric Nabalagi, Fonoti Seti Talamaivao and Seiuli Fiao’o Fa’amausili.

Fiao’o Faamausili lifts the World Cup. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Bakulich says the group wants to see Pasifika’s presence on the field reflected elsewhere in the rugby world. The aim is that the community is better represented in “the governance space, the non-playing pathways such as match officials and administration,” he says. “We’re also here to support Clarke in his role as Pasifika engagement advisor and work with NZ Rugby, which includes advocating for our Pasifika players.”

The group meets quarterly, with their first in-person meeting in May this year. Each member represents a different approach and background: Bakulich is both a funeral director and a Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local board member at Auckland Council, Fa’amausili is a former Black Ferns captain, and Jones has had an extensive post-All Black career including as board director for Pasifika Futures.. The group is currently working on a Pacific strategy that will sit within the New Zealand rugby diversity and inclusion strategy.

But is the Pasifika Advisory Group just an opportunity for NZ Rugby to tick a diversity box? Clarke says his role is to ensure that isn’t all that happens. “The more Pasifika people see their own people in rugby administration, governance roles and places where you can evoke positive change, the better the game will be for our community,” he says.

“If we can continue to go in spaces that we traditionally don’t feature in, we start to normalize being in a corporate role within NZ Rugby for the next generation to see.”

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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