Excitement building in South Auckland over proposed Pasifika Super Rugby team

Excitement is building in South Auckland over the proposal to establish a new Super Rugby team of Pasifika heritage in the city.

New Zealand Rugby released the findings of the Aratipu Report on Friday, which recommended a Pasifika team be included in a revamped Super Rugby competition from 2021.

It follows the news that Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby, whose backers include five former All Blacks, are in discussions with NZR about joining the new-look competition, fresh from securing a licence to play in North America's Major League Rugby competition.

Auckland Councillor for Manukau, Efeso Collins, said there was already huge enthusiasm locally about the proposed South Auckland side.

"When you've got the local rugby-heads here having informal discussions with [the ownership group] it means that it's creating a sense of expectation and excitement that people are hoping that this development is going to come to fruition," he said.

"When you've got names like Jerome Kaino involved and they've been talking about Tamati Ellison being the assistant coach [of the Hawaii franchise], I just think people think those are household names, familiar rugby names, names that we trust in the rugby circle and a lot of our young boys will be thinking yep I'm quite happy to pursue this as an option for my rugby development."

A former rugby development officer with the Counties Manukau Rugby Union, Collins said a Super Rugby team in South Auckland would open up new pathways for aspiring Pasifika players.

"It's so exciting for me, I'd even consider leaving my support for the Chiefs and getting behind this Pacific team," he said.

"I think this is all about opportunity and it's about our young people seeing that there's a way that they can staircase their careers.

"You look at the people who are involved at the moment and backing this team, and I think it's going to be a great way to encourage our young players to stay local, to know that the time and the effort they put into training can go somewhere, so I think this is an exciting potential."

Former Manu Samoa halfback Tino Junior Poluleuligaga was born and raised in South Auckland. Now the Director of Rugby at Papatoetoe Rugby RFC, he said the proposed team has been a hot topic at training.

"Just hanging around training, if they get there early or late and they just bring it up and say, 'oh hey did you hear about that Kanaloa team' or 'did you see Jerome Kaino owns that team' or 'Joe Rokocoko owns a new team - apparently they're going to have a team in South Auckland and they're going to be playing Super Rugby'." Tino Junior Pluleuligaga said.

"They've already started, the conversations are already starting to happen and it's good that there is awareness around it but like I said before I'm just holding back, sitting back, making sure. I don't want to get caught up in the hype, you know, but there is some sort of excitement in the community, especially with the boys and the young ones as well," he said.

The former Chiefs and Blues number nine hoped a local Super Rugby team would also benefit clubs in the region which are currently struggling for survival.

"These are the challenges that we face every day in terms of our rugby clubs and our schools as well in keeping our local talent local in South Auckland...our aspiring rugby players could be closer to the action, whoever was involved with the team can be out and about in the schools and the community and it would feel real because it's a Pasifika team and obviously there is a massive Pasifika community in South Auckland so it just makes sense," Tino Junior Pluleuligaga said.

RNZ Pacific understands there are multiple parties interested in running any potential Pasifika Super Rugby franchise.

Poluleuligaga commended the former All Blacks involved in the Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby group for taking a risk but said former Pacific Island internationals should also be involved in running a Pacific Island team.

"The likes of Jerome [Kaino] and Joe Rokocoko and Ben Atiga they all played for the All Blacks but then it would be awesome to see as well if they do bring people on board that have played for Samoa or Fiji or Tonga that do have that understanding as well," he said.

The 23 test international also played professionally in England and France. He said a Pasifika team would be a way for New Zealand Rugby to give back to the island nations and help address current eligibility issues.

"There are limited spots available for players that have played for Pacific Island nations and it's kind of forced us to unfortunately go overseas if we're not going to be an All Black or if we choose not to be an All Black. Hopefully this team does open up that eligibility and it allows our Pasifika players that opportunity to stay in New Zealand closer to home, closer to their communities, closer to their families without having to be forced to go overseas and find a professional contract," he said.

Efeso Collins agrees that rugby's eligibility rules are too restrictive.

"A lot of people don't declare who they're going to be with because they're scared that if they say they want to play for Samoa they won't get picked up for a Super team," he said.

"..and so by having a team based here that's part of a Super competition it's a definite pipeline for those young people who are at the moment in New Zealand but it also gives a pipeline for those back home in the islands - Tonga, Fiji, Samoa - if they don't want to get too far away."

The local councillor said establishing a Super Rugby team in South Auckland would also open more doors for players currently based in the Pacific Islands.

"And it might actually encourage some of the Island players to say look, if at some stage we might be able to travel to New Zealand they'll join this Pacific team, so I think the pathway that it sets, it allows our young people to participate in a brilliant competition, that means they're going to grow their talent and they're going to be looking for opportunities to serve their families as well," Collins said.

"There's a lot of money involved in rugby, there's a clear pathway for opportunity and people will be thinking about their families and that's often what a lot of these young players are thinking about," he said.

"You look at the Samoa and Tonga teams: a lot of those players are based in France and Japan and the UK because they know that it's an extension of being able to provide financially for their families."