Rugby league is attempting to establish a genuine foothold in the Nelson region and the Tasman Rugby League's new chairman, Paul Lafotanoa, spoke to Wayne Martin about its progress.
Paul Lafotanoa clearly believes in the product. The challenge now is to sell it.
Given his West Auckland roots, the Tasman Rugby League's new chairman is a self-confessed "leaguie" at heart and is now immersing himself in the task of spreading the gospel around the Nelson region.
League has certainly enjoyed its moment in the Nelson spotlight. When coach Paul Bergman guided his Tasman Orcas team to the inaugural Mainland Super 10 championship title in 2000, Nelson's small league community sensed an opportunity for their code to finally gain some traction in a province dominated by basketball, rugby and, to a lesser degree, football.
It wasn't Bergman's only success that season, the former New Zealand Universities player also coached his Nelson College team to an upset win over the highly rated St Paul's side on their way to the national secondary schools final. Significantly, that Nelson College side included a fresh young face who would eventually emerge as one of New Zealand's leading players – Simon Mannering.
Along with his father, John, and younger brother, Phil, Bergman was largely instrumental in raising the game's profile in Nelson. But the family have since moved on, Paul eventually heading to Australia via a coaching stint in Wellington, with no-one really prepared to carry the baton.
Until now, that is. When Lafotanoa arrived in Nelson seven years ago to be closer to his family, he was immediately struck by the lack of any significant league presence in the town.
He had cut his league teeth with the New Lynn Stags junior side and later with the Mt Albert Lions premiers, helping that side to the 1995 Fox Memorial Auckland premier title. However, that was to signal a self-imposed 15 year hiatus from the game, Lafotanoa instead opting to follow his other passion as a jazz drummer.
"I was enjoying my music more and broke my thumb and thought, 'No, I don't want to carry on with the league' and went down the music path," says Lafotanoa.
Once in Nelson, however, the old league instincts gradually resurfaced, with a telephone call from John Bergman last year prompting his return to the game and, ultimately, the formation of the new Tasman Rugby League.
"I received a phone call from John Bergman about a meeting that was to be held, with himself and some of the old board members. So we had a meeting and basically [a changing of the guard] where John Bergman basically wanted to step aside and let some fresh blood come through.
"So I put my hand up, as did a number of other people, and one thing we realised and we acknowledged, was that league has come and gone over the years, but there's been no pathway, no proper structure for the kids in the schools to go through primary and intermediate [grades] and then to representative level. So one of the things that we focused on was starting with the kids, hence we established the primary schools competition."
Under the guidance of the TRL's coaching and development officer, Andrew Samuela, the code has been introduced to seven Nelson primary schools who now compete for the Simon Mannering Cup. And according to Lafotanoa, that competition is thriving.
He says the emergence of a three-team senior club competition this season was almost "by default", the TRL not having planned to introduce that competition until next year.
"We wanted to really focus on the kids [this year]. But there was the interest there to start these [senior] teams, so we said `OK, this is the criteria, you get your teams sorted.' Next year it's going to be a lot more structured.
"To me, it's not about the quantity, it's about the quality at the moment and we've got a good competition, even though there were only three teams. The guys loved it.
"We know there's a lot of guys who want to try rugby league, but I guess thay haven't had that opportunity for a while. I guess with the exposure of the NRL and the Warriors, it's kind of attracted more interest in the game."
Next year, the TRL will look to run an 18-week club competition, involving a minimum of five teams, with a town versus country match for the appropriately named Bergman Cup, from which a representative team will be selected.
A Tasman representative side, under coach Stuart Esera, was selected this year to play two matches against West Coast, resulting in decisive 36-4 and 56-14 wins to the Coasters.
"When you look at the West Coast, they've got a strong structure which we envy. Their players are born and bred in league. I could see it in the games, the tackling and the techniques, you could see the difference.
"[But] with the right coaches and coaching staff in place, I know that we'll compete."
For the TRL, it was a positive foundation upon which to build future representative campaigns and next season Tasman will compete in an official South Island home-and-away series against West Coast, Canterbury, Otago and Southland.
According to Lafotanoa, an essential part of Tasman finally being able to establish an identity was the New Zealand Rugby League's implementation, last year, of a strategic five-year plan to formalise the structure under which the game will operate nationally on a regional basis. The North Island is divided into six zones, with the entire South Island constituting zone seven.
"I guess looking back, the support from the NZRL wasn't really there because they didn't have a game plan or a strategic plan for rugby league in the whole country and all the districts were doing their own thing.
"Now the districts have bought into NZRL's strategic plan, so we're all following this plan, which is a five-year plan to grow the game. So now we have a support structure from NZRL, not so much in financial terms, but all the districts are following a model and we have the support in terms of coaching courses and referees and the resources to help us get into the schools."
He says the TRL, with the ANRL's assistance, is also in the process of formalising the constitution which will be "designed to reflect the Tasman region".
"That's not too far away and once that gets signed off, then that'll open the door for us so that we can apply for funding with lottery grants and so on.
"I'm actively looking for a naming sponsor for next year, so I'm just knocking on doors, sending out emails, just [looking for] someone basically to support our game, get their brand on the jerseys of all our teams and give us a little cash injection to see us through."
Lafotanoa agrees that much of the game's promotion is also influenced by images of NRL league stars such as NRL stars such as Manly Sea Eagles fullback Brett Stewart who, last week, was found not guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage girl. The fact that Stewart was even in court simply re-emphasised the insidious alcohol-fuelled sub-culture that has infiltrated parts of the game at the highest level.It's these incidents and negative undertones that Lafotanoa says leads to "anger" and "embarrassment" by those league enthusiasts genuinely trying to foster a more positive image for league.
"It [affects] the whole image of the game, and that's unfortunate. [But] it doesn't matter what rugby league goes through, especially in Australia, the fans will still support the game. We want to attract families, communities and business people to our game and we want to get rid of the bad image that's been portrayed in the past.
"You make [some] ground and then take two steps back. But like I said, fortunately the product is the thing that keeps it going. At the end of the day, individuals are individuals, we can't help that.
"But we want to change that, we want the mothers to let their sons come and play our game – and it is a safe game to play."
Lafotanoa is confident that with the help of his team of treasurer Robin Simpson, secretary Sharon Tarapipipi, club liaison officer Aaron Waharoa and Samuela, the TRL will become a vibrant part of the Nelson sporting scene.
"I'm really thankful that I've got the right people in the right places to do the job," he says.
"I know that if the product's good and they can see that there's a pathway and there is a strong vision and a strong leadership, they will come over and play our game. I think this year, it was a matter of wait and see for a lot of them. We've got a strong mission statement that reflects us and what we believe in and a code of conduct. We'll strive to ensure that our game and our organisation is seen in the community in the best light at all times."
NAME THE TEAM
The Tasman Rugby League are looking for a new name for the representative team and are inviting the public to enter a new naming competition, in conjunction with More FM radio, which runs from October 4-22. From Monday, October 4, you can head to www.morefm.co.nz and vote for your favourite team name.
All voters are in the draw to win a Warriors jersey signed by Steve Price and a $100 dining voucher. Here are the names you can vote for:
- Tasman Titans
- Tasman Barracudas
- Tasman Stingrays
- Tasman Jetz
- Tasman Razor Sharks
Also – check out the Tasman Rugby League's Facebook page for information updates.