By Patrick Skene.

30th September 2021

The story of the proud Māori men that saved rugby league! As one of the greatest ever NRL finals series draws to a close, its worth pausing to remember a group of Māori pioneers who were responsible for saving Australian rugby league from financial ruin.

When Australians talk of rugby league’s history, the contribution of their Māori brothers in the early and fragile part of the game’s development is rarely mentioned. The Māori are often classed as recent interlopers to the NRL who should be grateful for the opportunity. The historical record tells another story.

In fact, Māori were a crucial stakeholder at the genesis of Australian rugby league in 1908.

“We Māori were partners at the very founding of the game in Australia,” explains Howie Tamati, former Kiwis hooker and ex President of the New Zealand Rugby League.

 “We are a concrete part of the foundation. Not many people know it, but the proceeds from the “All Māori” tours of Australia were crucial in saving rugby league in its moment of crisis.”

And a crisis it was. The 1908 inaugural Kangaroos tour of England had been a financial disaster with the English authorities having to pay for their trip home. The game’s backer JJ Giltinan, was declared bankrupt and many feared the 1909 season would not go ahead, leaving the game stillborn and the players returning to rugby union. 

The game was on its knees and needed a saviour and up stepped a group of heroes who set off across the Tasman in a steamer. 

Those rebel Māori rugby union players, who sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1908 under a cloak of secrecy, had told authorities in New Zealand they were embarking on a rugby union tour.

Instead, they joined the brand-new game, and led by brilliant All Blacks defector Albert Asher, they learnt the rules and played 12 games in Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane,

Their entertaining style & hakas attracted big crowds and the proceeds fended off the looming bankruptcy. According to the National Museum Australia: “Almost overnight, the league’s financial problems disappeared and the club season was saved.”

The All Māori returned in 1909 for a second tour to play another 10 games and they left behind their centre, Peter Moko, who joined Glebe and became the first Māori import to play in the Sydney competition.

The financial windfall from both tours helped the NSWRL dominate rugby union and create the iconic national institutions that NRL clubs are today.

Sadly, many of the touring team did not fare well on return. They were considered ‘unclean’ and treated terribly by the rugby union backed authorities and community with some unable to get jobs, dying penniless as pariahs.  

“They saved the game and it’s sad because they returned home as outcasts,” says rugby league historian Terry Williams. “It’s a historical blind spot.”

Howie Tamati adds. “The All Māori teams sacrificed themselves for the cause of rugby league.”

A salute to the historical All Māori heroes!

25th August, 2021

In 2020, Matt Burns created a programme designed to support students at Whangarei’s Kamo Intermediate. Through this programme, students are now rallying together to rejuvenate a once thriving Northland rugby league facility, Jubilee Park.

Matt Burn’s programme better develops the students’ learning in a more personalised fashion to keep them focused and in school. Burns centred his attention on students who found it challenging to engage in the classroom, so he created activities that would entice them to attend rather than skip class. In 2021, Burns was joined by two extra staff members and now intends to impact not just their school but also the community around them.

Once a week, Burns meets with the students to engage in group activities designed for fun and learning outcomes. They have created platter boards, learnt how to use power tools and even had an overnight stay at school where the boys prepared and cooked a traditional Māori Hangi.  

Burns stated, “Our students need guidance, they are not particularly enthusiastic about schooling, and so it was a priority for me to find a way that allows them to still be interested in school. We identified the troubled students and wanted to redirect their energy into activities and now into the community.

Besides the leisure-type activities, Burns wanted to focus on activities that gave back to the community around them, deciding to focus on once-thriving Northland rugby league home ground, Jubilee Park, now a run-down reserve in the local area.

Jubilee Park was once a prestigious rugby league venue, being the home to top-flight rugby league in Aotearoa’s north but has been abandoned since 2011. The reserve has been drowned in graffiti, waste and even multiple fires in the last few years. Once a bubbling host for Northland rugby league, Jubilee has become a forgotten icon with huge historical ties.

“Our intention now is to allow our activities to benefit others around us, as well as ourselves. We intend to make rugby league park, Jubilee Park an operational field for the schools all around Whangarei and Northland to use. Rugby league has always been a part of the culture in the north and restoring the park can be one step in the right direction.”

The group of teachers believe the rejuvenation of Jubilee park can inspire an expansion of the game for inter-school, club rugby league and sport in general in the Northland region.

The project will involve the students busting down the fences around the park, mowing the grass and equipping the reserve with equipment such as slides, swings and goalposts, fit for rugby league. The students will also learn to connect professionally with businesses and companies to gain sponsorship and learn valuable life skills.

Burns continued, “Eventually, we would love the local board to support our cause and become the driving force behind the restoration of Jubilee Park. We have even been in contact with local primary schools as they are also interested in the usage of the reserve.”

Rugby league was once religious in the north, and the students of Kamo Intermediate are in position to make that a reality once again. With the help of staff and local business’, the game can be reborn and thriving in what is a rugby league sleeping giant.

Matt Burns created a programme to keep struggling students in school, which now seconds as an integral community initiative working to keep an important part of Northland Rugby League history alive.

21 April 2021

Rugby League has joined nine other national sporting bodies alongside NZ Cricket, NZ Football, Hockey NZ, Netball NZ and NZ Rugby in backing the Sport NZ Balance is Better Statement of Intent first announced in September 2019.

NZRL joins the collective and individual action underway to keep young people in sport by putting a stronger focus on fun and development, reviewing existing competition structures and encouraging youth to play multiple sports rather than specialising too early.

The nine new sports to onboard the collective alongside rugby league are Athletics NZ, Badminton NZ, Basketball NZ, Golf NZ, Gymnastics NZ, Softball NZ, Touch NZ, Volleyball NZ and Waka Ama NZ.

Sport NZ Chief Executive Raelene Castle says it is great to see these sports formally commit to these important changes.

“We need to change what is offered and how we engage with young people. There needs to be quality opportunities for all participants, not just the best players.”

“Sport is a huge part of our society and important for the wellbeing of so many New Zealanders, however the way sport is delivered has not kept up with what young people are looking for. We know that because they’re telling us and many are also walking away.”

“The original five sports have done some excellent work and we now have ten more making this important commitment. This is another encouraging day for youth sport in New Zealand,” says Raelene Castle.

NZRL CEO Greg Peters says NZRL has long supported this initiative.

“It is hugely important Rugby league is an enjoyable and safe place for our communities to flourish, so there’s no questioning our support for the Balance is Better initiative. It’s great we can formally commit to this kaupapa and continue to work alongside other codes in providing positive sporting opportunities for youth across Aotearoa.”

The commitments outlined in the Statement of Intent are:

  • Ensuring all young people receive a quality experience, irrespective of the level at which they compete.
  • Leading attitudinal and behavioural change among the sport leaders, coaches, administrators, parents and caregivers involved in youth sport.
  • Providing leadership to support changes to competition structures and player development opportunities.
  • Working within their sports and schools to keep minds open while identifying talent throughout the teen years, including reviewing the role and nature of national and regional representative tournaments to ensure that skill development opportunities are offered to more young people.
  • Supporting young people to play multiple sports.
  • Raising awareness of the risks of overtraining and overloading.

To join the collective stand, national sports organisations must commit at executive and board level, and put resources behind making changes to how they deliver youth sport.

“This is an important step, but it is not their first. They’ve all been on a journey to get to this point, as are many other national sporting bodies,” says Raelene Castle.

“There is real momentum behind these changes – a widespread recognition that we need to work hard and work differently to create quality and fun experiences that will keep kids in sport. This is great for participants, future talent and for our sector.”

20 April 2021 – As published on by Kate Green

Black bin bags flap in the wind, and a small group of foragers makes its way along Petone beach, as the youth of Te Whanganui-a-Tara Māori Rugby League use their time off the field for good.

Among the adults is club chairperson Rebekah Toman (Ngāti Maniapoto), one of four generations of her family to be involved with the club.

She was handed the reins by her father, the former chairperson, and her mother had been secretary. Toman’s son, and now two mokopuna played for the club too.

But the sport was just a vehicle. The young people who joined them were given more than a uniform in club colours.

Some new members wouldn’t know any te reo Māori, Toman said. “But by the time we’ve finished with them, they know their pepeha, and three karakia.”

Established in 1993, the not-for-profit aimed to develop pathways and opportunities for young people in a way that celebrated being Māori, through the game of rugby league.

The season culminated in a game in Rotorua, with teams divided by age, and whānau encouraged to come along for support.

Aside from teaching skills on the sports field, the ethos of the group was to educate young Māori about tikanga and gives them a support network to succeed in all aspects of their lives.

Sadly, Toman said, the majority of male prisoners in New Zealand were Māori. “They’re disconnected,” she said. This programme aimed to connect youth to their roots, and build responsibility and resilience. “Rugby league is just a vehicle.”

Cleaning up their whenua was the latest in that education. “It’s teaching them about the environment that we live in, planting those seeds early.”

Their day at Petone beach, their second cleanup, was a success. There were 27 members; five adults and 22 kids. “We managed to rack up eight bags of rubbish,” Toman said.

It was a way of caring for Papatūānuku, which provided an opportunity to teach boys how to treat women – their sisters, mothers, aunties, and friends. “And instilling their history in them, their whakapapa.”

Previously, players were sponsored by a luck-of-the-draw type process, where the sponsor picked a number which was assigned to a player. “It was too easy,” Toman said, so now they were working for their funds.

At their first cleanup, they’d collected 20 bags of rubbish from Wainuiomata Hill, and would be heading back there with another group of older kids to finish the job. Plenty of rubbish had been too big to move; there was even a car bumper.

And it wasn’t just about the kids. For some older Māori, hearing their children talk about their newfound knowledge reignited a spark of curiosity. “Their tamariki have planted that seed again.”

There were more than 180 whanau on their social media page, and their books were still open.

Players paid a $50 commitment fee to join the league, and from that point on the players’ uniforms and travel was subsidised, to lighten the load on families.

The league was keen to get sponsorship from local businesses for future cleanup events, and if anyone had a location in mind they should get in touch.

30 March 2021

Wellington Rugby League have partnered with Healthy Families Hutt Valley to change lives through the game of rugby league, with their new smokefree sport initiative kicking off this April.

The initiative powered by Wellington Rugby League aims to drive home the message that by creating supportive physical and social environments which are smokefree and vapefree, we can affect change and be positive role models for our tamariki and rangatahi.

Creating spaces which are smokefree, support people who are smoking to quit and help them to remain smokefree. By targeting environments where people gather and play sport, there is an opportunity to enable people to begin their journey to quit, support them to lead smokefree lives and improve the health and wellbeing of not only players, but the whole whānau and wider community.

Wellington Rugby League CEO, Andre Whittaker says “Everyone, including our sporting community has a role to play in laying the foundations for a healthier future. This region wide smokefree rugby league initiative highlights the powerful leadership that can be driven through sport to promote healthy change.”

“We are whole-heartedly committed to this kaupapa to ensure local communities involved in rugby league are supported to be as healthy as they can be.”

The smokefree sport initiative is part of a wider approach to wellbeing within the sport. At a national level, the initiative supports New Zealand Rugby League’s organisational ethos – The Kiwi Way which encapsulates the sport’s strategic direction while representing holistic elements that are essential to the growth of the people, communities and the code.

“We will be helping people who are ready to begin their journey to quit smoking, with the support of Takiri Mai Te Ata Regional Stop Smoking Service. This support to quit, alongside positive messaging within our clubs will reinforce that rugby league is more than just a game, it is about being well now and in the future” says Andre.

Local clubs will be provided with supportive messaging which can then be passed on to players and whānau encouraging them to put their health, and the health of their whānau first. Through the regional smoking cessation service Takiri Mai Te Ata, club managers, coaches and volunteers will be provided with information on the quit smoking pathway.

The rugby league season is set to kick off across Wellington on Saturday 10 April with the junior and senior grade competition, as well as a celebration of wahine in sport.

Also coming up on the Wellington Rugby League calendar is a celebration of emergency services and a round recognising World Smokefree Day on 31 May.

For all the information on up-coming games follow the Wellington Rugby League Facebook page.