Understanding Pasifika culture pivotal for rugby league success

Former New Zealand Warriors rugby league star, Sione Faumuinā, believes the organisation needs to better understand the culture and values of its Pacific players if they want to see success.

The Warriors have had mixed results this NRL season with the team burdened by the huge sacrifice of relocating to Australia and the shock mid-season axing of coach Stephen Kearney in June, while four players returned home after the NRL failed to get exemptions for their families to join them in New South Wales.

But Faumuinā believes some disappointing results might reflect a mismatch in values.

"Looking at the last 25 years, there's enough evidence to say yes they don't [understand the culture]," he said.

"There's a real mismatch in values and understanding in not just Māori and Pacific culture, but maybe also for the Polynesian crowd to understand the values that they're trying to instil and I think until that happens, you probably won't see the Warriors reach their full potential."

In a video recently posted to Facebook, Faumuinā compared both positive and negative comments made on an article he shared in response to the Warriors' decision to fire Māori head coach Stephen Kearney, and players wanting to come home.

He used the comments to highlight the difference in values between Pacific and non-Pacific people.

"I made that video because I wanted to provide a different perspective that has never been or hardly ever been shared, and that's from a players perspective," he said.

"I went through my share of media with my off-field incidents, and even as a club in 2004 when we had a really bad season, there was never anyone that would come in and defend us publicly."

Faumuinā said there was always finger-pointing at the players and that was hard.

"People make comments based on what they know, that's why I rarely ever respond to them, but for people who have been in the system and been involved we know its more that that.

"This is why it's important to understand culture. I'm not saying our values are better, I'm just saying they're different...[and] making that video was to say here's a perspective that I want you to hear out because it really is the only perspective that matters."

2005 Premiership winner Dene Halatau now works with the NRL as a Well-being and Education Programmes Manager.

Halatau said working in the department had shown that Pacific Island players were more focused on studies which involved community work, youth work, and where they were contributing to "the greater good."

"From that level, I definitely get a sense of different values," he said.

"The fact that that's a priority for those players, you already understand that family and community mean a lot to Pacific players and it's the same for indigenous players here in Australia as well, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, there's an infinity for working with youth, community and trying to help from that point of view."

Former New Zealand and Samoa international David Solomona who also works for the NRL in well-being and education, said a lack of understanding the Pacific culture can have an effect on players.

"I think that any organisation that has a large number of people from the same culture should be smart in understanding what's the best way to work with these people, to engage with them, how do we communicate with them, because I found working in the game that in the past, there are times where that has affected Pacific Island players and there's been no input from them on how to tackle the situation or discuss it."

He said the mispronunciation of Pacific names was an example of ignoring conversations that involved Pacific Island players.

"A common theme that's been coming up lately is the mispronunciation of names and I don't feel there's been a lot of input or engagement with players to ask how important is this, and why are we not taking advantage of having these discussions, so I guess the game is a bit behind in that sense."

Halatau believed although progress was being made, the NRL still had a long way to go.

"I can't speak for every club across the game, but since my time in the game I think there's been huge leaps forward in terms of support for players but also the general understanding of the Pacific culture.

"Not to say that there's not a long way to go, but there's definitely been an improvement."

"More diversity is needed at the top"

Over 45 percent of NRL players have Pacific Island heritage and over 70 percent of the New Zealand Warriors squad were of Māori or Pacific descent.

Off the field, however, the sport of rugby league remained a white man's game.

The Warriors former general manager, Don Mann, said he believed more diversity was needed at the top.

"At the heart of what we're talking about here is diversity and inclusion," he said.

"From a sporting franchise, or for any business, being able to have a management team or an ownership group that reflects your employees but also reflects your customer base is crucial, and I would suggest if you don't have those basics sorted, you're always going to struggle."

Mann added that there was plenty of good work going on particularly when the likes of Nigel Vagana, Frank Puletua and David Solomona filled specific roles to address issues Pacific players dealt with.

"It's all very well to have Pasifika education and welfare managers, and they're great and they're excellent, or perhaps to have some mentors in clubs but unless it's really backed up with a seat at the table at a governance level, or at the very highest level in terms of senior management, you're only skirting around the edges of the situation."

Dene Halatau also said it was important to have a Maori or Pacific Island representative at the decision-making table.

"I definitely think it's important. With the number of Pacific players that are in the game..if a huge proportion of the game is Pasifika players then there is definitely a need to understand culturally and values wise where those players are coming from," he said.

The former West Tigers and Canterbury Bulldogs player said he knew Nigel Vagana was very passionate about having more representation in the building at the NRL.

"People sitting on Boards at management level [and] having that empathy to make decisions that are in line with the huge percentage of the playing cohort that is there [is important].

"I don't know of any Boards or CEO's or senior executive roles that are taken up by Maori and Pacific people but if there is opportunities and pathways that we can help nurture then I'm definitely supportive of that and I think it should happen for sure."

After working at the Warriors for 13 years, Don Mann said they should follow the lead of New Zealand Rugby.

"I applaud NZR for appointing Eroni Clarke for their Pasifika mandate and it appears that the role that he's been appointed into [as Pasifika engagement manager] really does have some meat and some bones behind it."

Mann pointed to the likes of Sir Michael Jones, Farah Palmer, Bailey Mackey, and President Bill Osborne as figures who offered diversity on the NZR board

"If you looked at the Warriors Board for instance, the questions I would be asking is does the Warriors Board and does where the control and power sit in terms of the Warriors Board, does that reflect their employee base and does that reflect their supporter base, and that's the question I would be asking."

"It's got nothing to do with the people who are there now, they're experienced, competent and capable people and I want to make this absolutely clear. My comment is not about the people who are on the Warriors Board now, my comment is about who's not there and who's not represented. If you look at their Board, I think they've got a Board of five, I don't think there's any Pasifika or Maori or any women on their Board."

Mann said the talent was there waiting to be offered an opportunity to contribute.

"Our people were born into leadership, we don't just come on as a rugby league player...There's plenty of talented Pasifika and Māori people, both male and female around, they're not hard to find, just appoint them."

The Warriors declined to be interviewed by RNZ Pacific for this story but CEO Cameron George told media last month the club needed to build and reconnect an identity to the group, club and fans.

"We need to build or reconnect an identity to the group, club, and our fans and not lose them through a huge period of change that we've had constantly 10, 15, years through coaches, players, senior management and owners."

"We're finally at the spot where we've got stability there and there and we're looking at finding the right person to coach [and] that's going to give us a chance to get that connection right with an identity."

The Warriors have since announced Nathan Brown as their new head coach from next season while New South Wales icon Phil Gould has been appointed as a club-wide consultant.

Gould already indicated there was a need for more Pacific Islanders in other roles after Sonny Bill Williams, who's making a return to play for the Sydney Roosters, challenged the new consultant to help Māori and Pasifika thrive off the field.

"I think we have to be more mindful of our demographic," Gould admitted.

"It's really important that our administrative roles and roles from coaching to all sorts of roles within professional rugby league are given the opportunity at least to be a part of that and that it reflects our demographic of our playing lengths."