Māori rugby league coach defends NZMRL and its tournaments

By James Perry

An organiser of one of the largest Māori rugby league clubs in the country has come out in defence of New Zealand Māori Rugby League, which came under attack this week.

Aaron Albert founded the Kōtahitanga Sports Club, which has grown to include teams in every grade at the five NZMRL-run tournaments. He says accusations the organisation hasn't created pathways for Māori players are unfair, and "rubbish".

"The number of kids getting picked up, especially from Kōtahitanga, is unbelievable. Mainly from the rangatahi and teina tournaments, you have all the scouts that are there. That's why it didn't sit well with me them saying about not having pathways," he says.

The 'them' he refers to is the group led by John Tamihere, which includes former Kiwi player and Warriors coach Tony Kemp, former Auckland Māori chairman Greg Whaiapu and Taitokerau rugby league founder Hone Harawira who last week filed a statement of claim against NZMRL citing concerns around governance, pathways and development and breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Talent scouts welcome

"The whole Māori rugby league fraternity is all behind New Zealand Māori," Albert says.

"The thing is, it's not up to them [NZMRL] to create pathways. What they do is they create these tournaments. And then we create the pathway, which is saying, 'hey, all your NRL scouts, we have this tournament on, you guys are more than welcome to come along and then check these kids out. Just having the tournament alone, that's creating the pathway."

He says many players who have worn the Kotahitanga jersey at NZMRL tournaments have gone on to play in the NRL, including Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jazz Tevaga, James Bell and Charlie Gubb, while Brandon Smith is another who played at NZMRL tournaments in other teams before heading to Australia. Younger Kōtahitanga players are on scholarships at heavyweight schools in Australia like Keebra Park on the Gold Coast and Marsden State HS in Brisbane.

"All of this has come off the back of these Māori tournaments.

Board committed

"There are just so many of them, whether they're linked up with the Broncos academy here, or Roosters academy. Wests Tigers have an academy here as well but a majority of them all come through the Māori tournaments. A lot of kids get seen at school already, so they're on the radar of a lot of the scouts but it's at the tournament where the scouts get to see them."

Albert says he isn't familiar with the situation in the boardroom of NZMRL but felt compelled to speak out in defence of the commitment of the board to growing and nurturing the Māori aspect of rugby league.

"In 2020, we had that pandemic around. And all the New Zealand rugby league tournaments were cancelled, everything school boys, national the whole lot. And I know with that NZMRL rangatahi tournament, that was normally meant to happen at Queen's birthday weekend in June, and they pushed it out to October, which was school holidays.

Determination paid off

"The board was still prepping for it, even though we were in the wrong levels. But there was a massive chance that the tournament wasn't gonna go ahead. But JD [NZMRL chair John Devonshire] and all his staff still kept going on and putting all that time into organising it."

That determination, Albert says, paid off when the government announced a changing of alert levels the very week NZMRL had rescheduled its event.

"Since that tournament, I think it's about eight or nine boys that are on development contracts or playing over in Australia on contracts."

Albert hopes for one NZMRL tournament that the likes of Tamihere, Kemp and others attend and witness first-hand the dedication the board has to putting on events for Māori rugby league fans.

"Like get there in the morning at 6am and see everything they do. They're dealing with blocked toilets, they're dealing with protests on the field, referees. There are just so many things that get thrown at them at the last moment."