How the NRL’s top clubs and media are changing their interaction with Pacific players
This weekend’s Pacific Tests are the centerpiece of a welcome return of elite international football to Australia after more than two years of pandemic-induced hibernation.
With a World Cup on the horizon, they provide a crucial chance for teams to adapt – and also for players to engage with their culture and heritage.
For Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, Cook Islander, Papua New Guinean and New Zealand players, this week will have been circled on the calendar all year – certainly anyone I’ve come across as part of this work mentioned these games, as well as the World Cup, as highlights.
The most recent data from the NRL suggests that 45% of the male playing field are of peaceful origin, a number which has only increased in recent years, and their role in the sport in 2022 cannot be understated. valued.
This is why understanding Pacific culture is so important to succeeding in the NRL. The best teams do this, by creating culturally appropriate work environments that allow their players to thrive.
Dr David Lakisa, Managing Director of Talanoa Consultancy, helps Australian sportspeople improve their interactions with Pacific people, by hosting conferences that aim to introduce key concepts in Pacific culture to foster better environments.
I attended one in May – with representatives from several top NRL clubs, as well as Super Rugby, Rugby Australia and Netball Australia – and the experience was groundbreaking.
“Talanoa conferences are an opportunity to authenticate and validate Pacific voices and their contribution to sport,” said Dr Lakisa.
“Through the pan-pacific methodology of ‘talanoa’ – similar to the indigenous methodology of yarn circles – we are able to exchange skills, ideas and experiences in a culturally appropriate way.
“We bring this approach and knowledge system in a way that organizations can apply and make it more culturally safe. It’s more than just about inclusion, it’s about innovation. It’s more than a performance, it’s a revitalization.
“We try to help shape these spaces to help everyone – players, their families, sponsors, stakeholders, employers.”
Even the presentations, normally a dry ice-breaking stage at lectures, were exceptional, with greetings and Teo Reo Maori, Samoan, Fijian and Tongan performances.
The importance of hospitality, a key phase in building relationships with the inhabitants of the Pacific, was highlighted, before moving on to belonging, by creating a welcoming and rewarding space, then to serve, by bringing life this feeling.
It’s easy to see how these things translate well on a rugby league pitch: when 45% of your players come from the same background, it’s obvious that you need to understand and listen to their culture to create successful teams.
“Pacific cultural safety, given the current representation of Pacific people in Australian sport, is a non-negotiable skill,” David said.
“You will be left behind if you don’t improve your skills and keep up to date with Pacific research, methodology and evidence-based learning.
“Most organizations can help an athlete become fitter, faster, and stronger, but not every organization can help Pacific athletes feel more secure, validated, and productive.”
One of the attendees was Joe Galuvao, the former Kiwi and Samoan international striker, who now works in player welfare and pathways at Penrith.
“I would have benefited a lot from the training our coaches and staff are getting now,” he said.
“A big part of that is understanding cultural practices and customs and being able to relate to our players.
“We are a relational and collectivist society and having that built into the way coaches approach and interact with players will get the most out of the players.
“From a strategic and best practice point of view for the club, the very fact that I am employed by the Panthers shows how progressive they are and how much they want to get the best out of their players.
“It’s the well-being and well-being of the players, and their identity is tied to that – the communities they come from and the people they are, the strengths and values that make them authentic should be celebrated. .
“It’s a big part of those clubs that are successful off the pitch, and that translates to the pitch. You can identify the clubs that are successful – they’re the ones doing great things off the pitch.
Two words that came up time and time again were ‘mana‘ and ‘Virginia‘, the first referring to the prestige and respect inherent in people and things and the second referring to ‘the space between spaces’, the unspoken but felt aspect of environments.
These concepts will be familiar to anyone who has played rugby at any level: the collectivist nature of the sport, bonding between teammates and respect for other players, coaches and (even) referees.
Shontelle Stowers, an NRLW star who played Women’s Origin and represented Australia at Sevens, said that Virginia would be second nature to football players.
“Intrinsically, we would call it ‘connection’ or ‘energy’ and that’s the space we’re talking about, the things that you can’t necessarily see but can feel,” she said.
“Spaces like this add so much value to the experience of your athletic career.
“The more these clubs send their administration and welfare officers into these spaces, the more awareness they will have, and when our players enter their space, the stronger the connection they will have and the relationships they will develop.
“The NRLW is in its infancy in terms of cultural frameworks, so it is crucial that we start to get those frameworks in place and make them a top priority now, as the game is only growing. We don’t have to play catch-up and burn it from now on.
Dr Lakisa and the other speakers – Dr Sierra Keung from Auckland University of Technology and John Hutchinson, a player welfare expert with NRL, Souths and Parramatta – talked about the mana– nurturing environment, a space where all participants feel culturally validated.
If you are looking for what is a mana-the improved space looks like you’ll see in a big way this weekend in Campbelltown.
For Lakisa, the Pacific Tests are essential in bringing these cultural spaces to the forefront in the fabric of the game, especially in giving players the space to celebrate their culture.
“Pacific Testing is essential for gaming and sport to help fans and players connect, reconnect, learn and relearn,” he told me.
“Everyone is learning right now, and that’s why these cycles are essential – not just for identity, but for their journey.
“We see it now. Devotions are a key part of Pacific Camps, but may not be as important at Clubs. Cultural performances, whether singing or dancing, may not be as prominent in clubs. Pacific testing plays a huge role in helping stakeholders connect. »
It’s not just the playgroup either. Lakisa recently held conferences with Nine Media, which will broadcast the Pacific tests, with issues such as cultural recognition and correct pronunciations front and center.
“Our recent knowledge partnership with Wide World of Sports, which is to develop and create culturally safe spaces for players, content producers and commentators to better engage and understand Pacific people in sports,” said said Lakisa.
“One aspect is the authentic pronunciation of Pacific peoples, because of the importance of ancestral connections and values of spirituality, respect, family and culture.
“I’m really excited for organizations like Nine to invest in this space because it provides cutting-edge opportunities and creative spaces for our society to play and have fun.
“That’s the key. That’s the importance of shared spaces: often we think someone is doing something wrong and we need to fix it, but it’s really about helping to understand and co-design together. »