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Indigenous former NRL players are calling for more cultural competency work across the game.

They say there is a lack of diversity within all levels of the code, and to make any impactful change there needs to be more indigenous people in leadership positions.

For instance, according to our research, there are currently no indigenous head coaches in the NRL men’s competition.

Seventeen teams are competing this year, with more than 500 players.

Newshub couldn’t get official numbers, but our research suggests around 65 percent are indigenous with 45 percent of that number Pasifika, 10 percent Māori, and 10 percent Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

They carry the game, but cop an unhealthy dose of racism.

Former player Billy Moore was famously proud of his own background, but notoriously flippant when talking about NZ Warriors’ Polynesian flair, describing it as “coconut style”.

Even NRL staffers made racial comments like “dance monkey dance” about Tongan supporters.

NRL indigenous pathways manager Dean Widders said it’s got to stop.

“Racism comes back and it just strikes you back to the old times again,” he said.

“We haven’t gone anywhere and things are never going to change. The things that I battled through, things my grandparents and my ancestors battled through, will my grandkids, my great-grandkids have to battle through the same thing?

“That is frustrating as a black fella.”

Widders said players’ lives are so visible now, more needs to be done to support indigenous players.

“The game has gotten away with probably just having these immensely talented athletes,” he told Newshub.

“These gifted, gifted footballers that they’ve been able to overcome that and shine through.

“But now, rugby league, any sport is bigger than just what you do on the field now.

It comes with all the other baggage or all the other responsibilities that the player has to hold.”

Widders works alongside former dual international Timana Tahu, who now works as the NRL’s indigenous pathway manager.

“It’s just a matter of starting to identify this stuff,” he told Newshub.

“I think that’s why people like me are in these roles. They start identifying, researching and giving it to my commissioners and leaders.”

While there are lots of indigenous players, there are no head men’s coaches, and few NRL staff who are indigenous.

It’s an old problem, as one former chief executive put it after yet another racism scandal, when David Gallop decreed “there’s obviously racism everywhere”.

“How far you progress will come down to your ability to be able to handle stress and pressure off the field,” added Winders.

“Culture is a big part of that. Culture might not matter to a lot of people, to a lot of non-Indigenous people.

“But to us, that’s all that matters. Particularly when we come along hardships in particular, we come up against setbacks, and particularly when we are dealing with tough issues, culture is the only thing that’s gonna get us through that.”

When Apirana Pewhairangi arrived at Newcastle Knights as a 17-year-old, he told the manager in front of a team group that he was studying a bachelor of arts in Māori Knowledge.

“His response to me was ‘oh is that hangi making 101 and canoe making 101’,” he said.

“Everyone, the whole room broke out in laughter. I just remember feeling really, whakamā [embarrassed], really sad.

“I guess I sort of went into my shell and sort of realised that I couldn’t bring my culture and I couldn’t talk about my culture.”

Former NZ Kiwis captain Adam Blair grew up in Northland, steeped in Māoritanga. He left it behind to fit into the NRL – but it was a struggle.

“When I felt like the walls are caving in on me, or if there was pressure on me, my outlet was the bush, was the ocean because it just made me peaceful,” Blair told Newshub.

“It made me feel like I was grounded, I belong to something.”

Widders said more indigenous in NRL leadership roles would be proof that they’re valued.

“Our people are capable, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of access to those roles for our people.

“So there’s barriers and we need to find out what those barriers are and knock them down and then create a pathway for our people to come through.”

Knocking down barriers and creating a pathway – something that comes naturally on the field – but still waiting for its moment off the field.