Court battle looms over future of Māori rugby league

By James Perry

The future of Māori rugby league in Aotearoa could be in the hands of the High Court, after a group led by John Tamihere, a former chair of NZ Māori Rugby League, filed proceedings against the organisation.

The statement of claim filed by the group in the Hamilton High Court, involving former Kiwi, former Warriors coach Tony Kemp, former Auckland Māori Rugby League chair Greg Whaiapu and former MP and founder of Tai Tokerau Rugby League, Hone Harawira, alleges unconstitutional actions, breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi and a failure to develop pathways for Māori and Pacific Island youth.

Harawira told teaomaori.news there were three main issues at play.

"Tuatahi ko te kore whakaae a te Rīki Māori kia areare mai tētahi atu ki tana poari. Tuarua, ahakoa te hiahia o tētahi o ngā Kiwi te aru atu, tētahi o te ao Pākihi Māori, tētahi anō o te rohe nui o Tāmaki Makaurau ki runga o taua poari, kua raka tuturu mai te kuaha. I tua atu, korekau he hui a tau ia tau mō ngā tekau tau pahure ake anō rā kore kau he arotake pūtea mō ngā tekau tau kua pahure ake."
(First of all, NZMRL has refused to allow others to join its board. Secondly, even though a Kiwi, Māori businessperson and someone from Auckland are wanting to join that board, they have been blocked. And finally, NZMRL has not had an AGM or a financial audit for the past 10 years).

Refuses to talk

The claim says attempts have been made to meet with NZMRL in the past, to no avail.

"The defendant's executive was invited to a hui on September 12, 2021, convened by current and former Māori rugby league players, coaches and officials, led by Tony Kemp, promoting a new pathway for establishing equality in rugby league, increasing engagement by Māori and Pasifika in rugby league and to be treated fairly by those entrusted to govern rugby league from a Māori and Pasifika perspective. No members of the defendant's executive attended," the claim says.

Harawira says both NZMRL and New Zealand Rugby League are dropping the ball when it comes to developing pathways for rangatahi. 

Horekau he huarahi mō ngā taitamariki, mō ngā wāhine mō ngā tāne Māori ki roto i Aotearoa. Mēnā kite koe i te kapa Kiwi, ko te katoa o rātou i tae atu ki taua tūranga mai i ngā karapū o te NRL. Horekau he huarahi tā te rīki Māori, tā te Rīki hoki o te NZRL. Me whakawātea mai kia uru mai ētahi atu hei hāpai, hei whakatakoto i tētahi huarahi kia tae atu matou ki tō mātou ake tino rangatiratanga.
(There aren't pathways for our young Māori, our women or men in New Zealand. If you look at the Kiwi side, all of them have come from the NRL. There are no pathways for Māori rugby league or New Zealand rugby league. They must create pathways, so others can join, and create new pathways, so we can achieve our tino rangatiratanga.)

Harawira co-founded Taitokerau Rugby League in 2016, breaking away from Rugby League Northland. Starting with six clubs in the Far North.

Growing rapidly

The competition has since grown to 10 teams, now as far south as Whāngārei. For the second year in a row, the officially sanctioned RLN were left without a senior competition as teams have switched to TRL, or in the case of Takahiwai, Auckland. 

He says TRL is involved with this latest legal action after being repeatedly knocked back by NZMRL. 

"Kōtahi te whakataetae Māori i Aotearoa nei, ko mātou i Te Taitokerau Rugby League. I īnoi mātou i ngā rima tau kua pahure ake kia uru ki te poari, engari kore i whakaae. I ngā whā tau, kore whakaae. He aha te take kia whai mātou i tō mātou ake tino rangatiratanga mēnā e kore tō mātou poari e whakaae kia noho tahi mātou ki tōna ake poari. Moumou taima.
(There's one Māori competition in the country and that's here in Te Tai Tokerau. We've asked over the past five years to be on the board but they haven't agreed. We asked for over four years but they haven't agreed. How can we achieve our tino rangatiratanga if our board doesn't agree to sit together on the board? It's a waste of time.)

New Zealand Māori Rugby League Chairman John Devonshire declined to comment on the proceedings following the advice of NZMRL lawyers.