Big year for Māori rugby league despite Covid-19 setbacks

By James Perry

The Māori rugby league calendar kicked off on Friday with the Pacific Youth Cup featuring the Māori U18 Tama and teams representing Tonga, Tonga Development, Cook Islands, Fiji and Niue.

The tournament has been disrupted for the past two seasons due to Covid-19. New Zealand Māori Rugby League chairman John Devonshire says it’s important to try to salvage something for the rangatahi, despite the Red Light system preventing crowds at North Harbour Stadium.

“That’s a little disappointing because, as Pasifika and Māori people, we like to express ourselves and hear the aunty and the uncle and the nana and the koro on the sideline. That atmosphere won’t quite be the same but at least our rangatahi get an opportunity to play.”

Devonshire says the players are keen and hungry to get back on the field despite it being only January, and so soon after Christmas and New Year festivities.

“We saw the World Schools Sevens last weekend, and our kids are keen. Like anything when you get a group of youth, some are in better shape than others but it’s about the opportunity of representing your culture.

“Fair to say, I’ve had a look at some of the players, and some of them had a good Christmas break and others have come back in a bit better shape.”

While first and foremost for the Māori Tama is the chance to wear the Māori jersey and represent their whānau, hapū and iwi, having the games broadcast live on TV means the opportunity to forge a career in rugby league is still alive given the previous two Covid years limited the chances for talent to be spotted.

“There’s an opportunity for scouts, whether they’re watching in England or Australia. That is an added bonus but it’s not 'the' bonus for our Pasifika and Māori players. Careers beckon, yes, but it’s about where we come from and using rugby league as the waka to get there.”

No go for Tuakana

While the Pasifika Youth Cup has gone ahead despite the Red light setting, the news isn’t so great for the annual Tuakana Māori tournament.

Having been postponed from its regular Labour Weekend slot in 2021 because of lockdown affecting Auckland in particular, the league had hoped to run the tournament on Waitangi Weekend.

However, the difficult decision has been made to cancel the tournament for the first time in its 28-year history.

Devonshire says the decision came down to what was best for the whānau involved, and whether the tournament could go ahead in its entirety.

“Throughout the motu, and even in my own rohe, Waikato Tainui, marae are closed. There are implications and criteria with Covid and those who are vaxxed and not-vaxxed. Plus there are a lot of distractions and getting the opportunity to represent whatever code – league, rugby, soccer, netball, hockey, basketball – the opportunity to come together as Māori, to me, that’s huge.

“It’s not always about on-field results. I can honestly say I’m not too fussed about who wins or who takes the taonga home at the end of the day but I’m happy to see them smile, and represent their iwi, rohe or hapū.

Onwards and upwards

Devonshire says while the cancellation is a disappointing way to finish the 2021 calendar, an exciting 2022 beckons and the New Zealand Maori rugby league is looking forward to a full year of Māori rugby league, beginning with the NRL All Stars clash at Parramatta Stadium on February 12 and continuing on to the annual tournaments for tamariki, teina, rangatahi and tuakana.

“I also just want to mention the rise and development of our kōtiro. Our girls are just taken off. We’ve got U13’s, 14’s, 16’s and 18’s in our kōtiro grades. Now they have a tournament on their own, it’s just got so big.

“So we’re grateful to our whānau and providing that opportunity for them throughout the motu.”