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All on board . . . South Canterbury Rugby Union chief executive Craig Calder (front row, centre), with members of the Tongan Society. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

All Black great Keven Mealamu is coming to Timaru to take part in a ground-breaking seminar being run by the South Canterbury Rugby Union, to build stronger relationships with the Pasifika community and players.

In a first for New Zealand rugby, the local union will host the “Talanoa” (rolling out the mat) seminar on Friday, March 8.

Mr Mealamu, a grandson of Samoan immigrants who is also an ambassador for New Zealand rugby, will speak of his experiences growing up in south Auckland and progressing to become only the third All Black to play 100 test matches.

South Canterbury players from Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji will also share their experiences of moving to New Zealand and Timaru.

Keven Mealamu. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

“It’s part of our strategy to welcome all cultures, genders and ages into the game in South Canterbury,” local union chief executive Craig Calder said.

 

“It’s important because we want our Pasifika players, who make up 8% of our players, feel they belong.

“They’re the fabric of our game here now.

“In the last two years, our players of the year have been Pasifika boys.

“They make up 25% of our Heartland team and there’ve been very famous names over the years.

“We want them to create meaningful pathways for them in sport.

“It’s an opportunity for our coaches and union referees to understand the Pasifika experience.”

Mr Calder said 14 Tongans were coming into South Canterbury this year, some of whom would be employed at Alliance Smithfield.

Work was going on to provide “support mechanisms” for them to help adjust to life in New Zealand.

“This day is very overdue.

“We’re proud to be leading this focus in New Zealand rugby.”

Mr Calder said the day followed a visit by Sir Michael Jones last year.

“We’ve been working with the Tongan Society in Timaru since then.”

Three Rugby New Zealand staff members will attend but Mr Calder said he was driving it.

“I saw, coming into the union three years ago, how important Pasifika players are to us.”

“You can see the boys are shy and can be reluctant to participate,” Mr Calder said.

“I wanted to embrace them and make them feel part of our rugby family and culture.”

“I saw, coming into the union three years ago, how important Pasifika players are to us.”

Mr Calder said a stand-out locally was the Celtic and South Canterbury front-rower Matt Fetu who came to Timaru as a schoolboy and played his 100th game for South Canterbury last season.

“What he has achieved is an example of a good South Canterbury citizen.”

Mr Calder said there had been reluctance in the past to have Pasifika players coming to the region but that died out long ago.

“They’re now very much part of our structure.”

The national union was aware that many Pasifika players viewed rugby as a palagi game and did not come forward as officials.

“You don’t see many leaders from the Pasifika community.

“We’re trying to change that and give them a voice. We want them to move into administrative roles.

“It’s been wonderful working with the Tongan Society and how committed and passionate they are to want this day work.”

Pauline-Jean Luyton, of the Tongan Society, said it was a big chance to “have a conversation”.

“It is fairly groundbreaking.

“We’ve got a working group representing Tongan, Samoan and Fijian players, as well.

“It’s the first step to hear the voice of Pasifika players and it’s not just us; the pioneers of the island players have been involved; we’ve consulted with the boys.”

Mr Calder said he would tell the Pasifika players attending the Talanoa their responsibility was to respect the game, heritage, people and community.

“I will tell them their responsibility is to follow a code of conduct on and off the field and to point out the rewards they can receive with representative rugby.

“The more they give, the more they can get back.”

Talanoa is a traditional word, used across the Pacific, to reflect a process of sharing stories, building empathy and making wise decisions for the collective good.