After Major League Rugby officials revealed the success of an expansion bid from Kanaloa Hawaii to join the league for the 2021 season, it has since emerged that the latest newcomers to the American rugby scene are backed-up by a plethora of former All Blacks.
According to a story on djcoilrugby.com, ex-New Zealand representatives Anthony Tuitavake, Ben Atiga, Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko and John Afoa – as well as former New Zealand sevens international Benson Stanley – have all clubbed together with friends and business associates Matt Atiga, Tracy Atiga and Cam Kilgour to found the first Maori and Polynesian owned and operated professional rugby club in the world.
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Known as the Mercury Group, the new club’s ownership team – who are based in Europe, New Zealand and the UK – are said to have given back to the wider Maori and Polynesian community through free community rugby clinics and voluntary service to the development of club, provincial and international rugby.
This includes coaching clinics delivered in Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Tahiti. Now they are taking that commitment to another level by the setting-up of a professional rugby franchise in Hawaii, an area of the United States not traditionally associated with professional sports.
In a video shared by Ben Atiga on social media, the overriding message that came through was that this can provide an opportunity for members of the Pacific community. Stanley said: “Kanaloa represents for me a chance to give back and create opportunity for others and those in our Pacific Island community.”
Afoa echoed these sentiments, saying “the word that comes to mind is opportunity” while Tuitavake said that this is a chance to Pacific players “to be equal with everyone else”. This is a positive message, but Atiga equally presented the other side of the coin, explaining that he has “witnessed an uneven playing field that is faced by Polynesian players today”.
Dual rugby World Cup winner and 83-cap All Black Kaino, who was born in Samoa, said that the goal of Kanaloa Hawaii is to create “an even playing field for Polynesians and Maoris to be able to get on the world stage”. He said: “The impact we have on people back home is enormous and you end up finding out that rugby is more than just a game.
“The people making decisions and the people giving (players) the opportunities have the same values as they have and the same village-type style ethos that we all grew up within a Polynesian background. That’s what it means to us to be able to create a legacy and create something special to be able to pass on to the next generation of rugby superstars.”
Former All Blacks winger Rokocoko, who was born in Fiji, stressed an important message as well that the MLR team has a “belief and faith that we put players before profit”. He said: “Our brothers and sisters are performing at a high-level week in week out and are not being treated the same or valued the same as a player from another nation. No other club, I’m sure, would have the same values or point of view in how a club should be run.”
Atiga drove the message home, presenting a compelling argument for why this team will be such a benefit to players that have historically been deprived of chances. He said: “I believe we can make a significant impact in our Polynesian community that will also spill over and create a culture for our players to learn and develop and become great athletes, and not just that but to also become great leaders within their communities long after their playing days are over.”
Of course, the great boon for any player and coach is that this will be one of the most exotic rugby locations on the map, but this means a lot more for the players behind it, as Kaino said, it presents the opportunity to “show what our little nations can do on the world stage”.
A letter written by club CEO Tracy Atiga stated: “By taking on the responsibility of a club, the owners can provide direct solutions to challenges that Maori and Pasifika players face in the rugby industry.
“The owners have pledged to lead through a Polynesian village ethos based on servant leadership principles that are guided by the organisation’s values of faith and family. The ownership team is excited to have secured a spot in the MLR and have already set their sights on making a bid to participate in the Oceania-based Super Rugby competition and other global competitions moving forward.
“Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby wishes to acknowledge and express sincere gratitude to the MLR, Hawaii Rugby Union, and various local organisations that have offered support and partnership opportunities to get the venture off the ground.”
Having had their initial application accepted by MLR HQ in Dallas, Kanaloa Hawaii now have 90 days to finalise terms and meet the necessary benchmarks before their membership is formally ratified ahead of the 2021 season.