Another NZ team in the NRL or an NZ competition needed, says UC lecturer

Friday 12 October 2012, 12:04PM
By University of Canterbury

A University of Canterbury (UC) lecturer says another New Zealand franchise needs to be entered into the NRL rugby league competition or start a New Zealand competition to provide greater opportunities for Maori players.

UC Maori studies lecturer Phillip Borell said today the number of professional opportunities in New Zealand rugby league was limited.

``However, a solution could be by having another New Zealand entered into the competition or by setting up a professional New Zealand competition. However, it isn’t that simple, the NRL is an Australian competition and there are already a number of clubs vying to be the next NRL franchise, also the NZRL simply couldn’t fund a national professional competition at this stage.

``Due to lack of opportunity in New Zealand, young rugby league players are forced to seek careers in other countries. Obviously the opportunity for a professional rugby league career in New Zealand is not as accessible as one in rugby union. There is one professional rugby league team in New Zealand compared to the five Super Rugby franchises and also the provincial unions,’’ Borell said.

Maori remain over-proportionately represented in the code with 42 percent of all adult rugby league players having Māori heritage according to latest Sport NZ (SPARC) statistics.  Yet Maori make up around 15 percent of the total New Zealand population.

While it is known that the NZRL are working hard on development and providing pathways for young athletes, the only real opportunities outside of the New Zealand Warriors franchise are overseas competitions. Borell said in reality there was not a lot that could be done to slow the numbers of Maori, or other New Zealanders, seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Riki Papakura in 1911 and George Nepia in 1935 are two early examples of how rugby league provided opportunities to Maori, within a professional sport, to achieve success financial security at levels unprecedented in amateur rugby union.

``I found in my research the increased opportunity that rugby league afforded Maori. A Maori rugby league team toured Australia in 1908, before a game had been played on New Zealand soil, two years before a New Zealand Maori rugby union team was formed in 1910.

``One benefit that rugby league provides to communities is that is has maintained a very distinct Maori flavour and culture. Due to early involvement by Maori and the continued acceptance of Maori by league many clubs have what could be seen as kaupapa Maori ways of doing things or even tikanga (values) Maori practices.’’

``This could also be attributed to the high number of Maori who play the game. League also tends to have higher Maori participation at the coaching, administration, management level compared to rugby. Again, this could be attributed to the inclusive nature of league that has developed since its establishment as a working-class breakaway from rugby union in England.

``Young Maori guys are immersed in Maori culture in league clubs mostly without realising it. That is, with so many clubs maintaining Maori protocol, conscious or not, there is a sense of marae style/iwi style hierarchy and respect that occurs within the club and clubrooms.’’

The NZ Maori Rugby League was a good model for Maori. It remained an autonomous entity alongside the NZRL. It is predominantly self funded and acts as a partner to the NZRL.

A current example of a Maori league player progressing his career elsewhere is the signing of James Tamou to play for New South Wales in the State of Origin and the Australian test team. This has lead to further research of Maori identity in professional sports and the importance of ‘blind' loyalty to the state.

Other recent examples of Maori representing countries include Shontayne Hape, Rangi Chase, Henry and Robbie Paul and Quade Cooper.

``By no means are these athletes any less Maori for representing another country. Their identity as Maori is not determined by the nation state. It appears that, while being professionals in their field, athletes are not allowed the same freedoms of movement in terms of seeking the most lucrative contracts at the cost of patriotism.’’