New Auckland Rugby U21s competition showcases Pasifika talent

September 19, 2020

Vaia Tony Lafotanoa (first from left), Martin Stewart (fourth from left), Sir La'auli Michael Jones (third from right) and Saveatama Eroni Clarke (second from right).

By Elijah Fa'afiu - elijah.fa'

A new Auckland regional rugby competition will showcase Pasifika players under the age of 21.

Four teams will take part in the Super Club Rugby U21s Championship, representing different parts of Auckland: the West Rangers, Central Kings, East Toa Moana and Southside Rising. 

Teams will be filled by players selected from the Auckland rugby clubs based in each region.

Leaders in the rugby and Pasifika community are backing the initiative, including Auckland Rugby Union President and New Zealand Rugby’s Pasifika Engagement Manager Saveatama Eroni Clarke. 

After a season cut short by Covid-19, Saveatama says the competition is an innovative way to help fix the loss of participation in rugby throughout the country. 

“As soon as this idea was presented to me, it really gave a wonderful way to promote the under-21 competition. 

“Here’s a competition that can offer different pathways because I think the normal pathway in terms of furthering your sport or rugby, it didn’t really serve particularly Pasifika very well.” 

The former All Black says young Pasifika players would benefit from having more media coverage, even after they finish secondary school. 

He believes the under-21s competition would be a great way to promote rugby players who missed out on playing at a top level in high school. 

“We’re seeing at high school, mainly at 1st XV level, that they’re getting a lot of media coverage. I think social media’s another wonderful way and so these are promoting more and more of these younger players,” says Saveatama. 

“We need more and more of that, particularly as they leave high school and I’m not talking about 1st XV, it’s that second tier of athletes who are thinking about ‘what, do I need to carry on? I didn’t make the 1st XV, maybe I should stop, maybe I should focus more on work’. 

“I don’t think before that we had any sort of media coverage around this age group and it’s a very important age group as well.” 

Auckland Rugby Union President Saveatama Eroni Clarke speaking at last night's competition launch.

Saveatama Eroni Clarke says he wants the competition to appeal to a Pasifika audience and believes the under-21s initiative will bring the Auckland rugby region closer together. 

“We’ve got the biggest Pacific population in the world and I think it’s something that’s really great that Auckland Rugby, together with Counties and also with North Harbour, that they’re taking a real lead in this.” 

Saveatama says although it's humble beginnings for the group putting the competition together, he sees the initiative reaching a global audience down the road. 

“To be able to continue to build this competition and can you even just imagine connecting in with the Pasifika, this is with my own Pacific lens on, is seeing it connecting to the Pacific and globally as well.”  

The under-21s competition is the brainchild of Tony Lafotanoa, who is a volunteer at the Waitakere Rugby Club.

With Pasifika players making up more than half of registered rugby players in Auckland, Lafotanoa says the competition will be a great opportunity to put a spotlight on the Pasifika talent.

The SCRU21s Tournament Director says the competition will not only promote the players on the field, but their stories of where they come from as well.   

“Well over 50 per cent of all registered rugby players in Tamaki Makaurau are of Pacific Island descent, so we all know that in relation to connection, opportunity and pinging it back to our Pasifika community and our players, this is an amazing opportunity for them," Lafotanoa says.   

He observed the stressful effect the Covid-19 pandemic had on teams. 

“Club rugby was decimated with the start of the season being pushed back and at one stage, it looked like it may not have happened.” 

There were concerns over how a season impacted by the pandemic would harm clubs looking to keep or recruit up-and-coming rugby players. 

“That really caused a lot of angst among our clubs and community to look at how we could still retain our players and that’s been an ongoing issue,” says Lafotanoa. 

Eighteen clubs will offer players for the competition, including two teams from the North Harbour and Counties Manukau region. 

“There is a very strong sense of community, there’s a strong sense of desire to make this work and make it something that is community club-led and at the same time, ensure that we’re providing a platform that still keeps our players engaged in a season that’s become quite truncated,” Lafotanoa says. 

Lafotanoa says those involved in the competition won’t necessarily be the elite under-21 players in Auckland. 

“It was more about the players that all of our clubs have at the moment who just love to play and they want to play for other reasons. 

“My focus was more about the 80 per cent of the rest of our under-21 players and to look at creating a championship that would give them a sense of representative rugby that sat outside what is normally in place after the end of the regular rugby season and to give them something to aim for.” 

Lafotanoa wants high school rugby players to see the competition as a platform to reach their dreams in the rugby pathway. 

“When those players who are currently sitting in school systems recognise that club rugby is a platform, a legitimate platform for higher honours and professional opportunity, our job is to make sure that the way this competition is promoted in that they can see that it is a fantastic new competition. 

“It will give them that competition, with the other leaders across our club rugby family.” 

The Waitakere rugby club director is hopeful the under-21s competition will be a launching pad for players to receive higher representative honours. 

“We are mindful that the three unions have a representative program as well. We want to help support the unions with their programmes, so this sits quite nicely at the beginning part of October as a curtain-raiser for the representative programme for the three unions. 

“If any of those players across the four conferences put their hands up in terms of form, then we’d love for them to be recognised and hopefully picked for higher honours as well,” says Lafotanoa.

Some of the coaches and Directors of Rugby involved in the Super Club Rugby Under-21s competition.

The competition was launched last night at the Waitemata Rugby Football Club in West Auckland.

One of the players taking part in the competition is 21-year-old Junior Matautia from Waitemata, who will be playing for the West Rangers.

"Representing where you grew up is amazing, pretty good. It’s a one-time opportunity and it’s going to be amazing. Actually excited for the tournament and keen to get into it," says Matautia.

​"Not many people get the chance to play in these tournaments, especially out in West. You hardly find many Samoans out here that are playing, it’s mainly in South. Once you get these opportunities, you got to take it with both hands.​"

​The first-five/fullback wants to use the under-21s competition to enhance his game.

"A goal, well for everyone else, it will be to win the competition. But for me personally, it’s just to get better as a player and just improving week-by-week.​"

Jermaine Malaga from Papatoetoe will also take part in the tournament, suiting up for the Southside Rising.

The 20-year-old first-five/fullback wants to gain exposure from the under-21s competition.

"Just getting there, performing to the best of my ability and hopefully exposure from whoever’s out there, any scouts, anything like that and hopefully make it to the big leagues one day.​"

Malaga acknowledges the majority of the South team will be made up of Pasifika players and is excited about representing his Samoan heritage.

"The South side will be full of Pacific people and it’s just the culture, having the culture on your team, building a strong bond with the boys. 

"If we don’t win the tournament, just being out there with the boys, repping South Auckland, repping our culture, that’s the fun, just enjoying each other’s company." 

Former All Black and New Zealand Rugby Board Member Sir Michael Jones addressing the audience at last night's competition launch.

The four regional teams will be playing for the Sir Michael Jones Trophy.

The former All Black says it's an honour to have the tournament's prize named after him.

"I suppose you’re never really going to get used to it. But because it’s something that’s so innovative and new and creative and it’s going to make a big difference, it makes it really special so I’m very grateful again, very humbled.​"

La'auli Michael Jones says the under-21s group is important to invest in because players tend to disconnect from rugby after leaving school.

"It’s a really important cohort for rugby, in particular for Auckland and the wider region. Statistics tell us that a lot of our boys disengage after they leave school and they don’t go back into rugby. 

"This is an amazing initiative to make sure that we can re-engage our young men and women to stay in the game and come back to the clubs and be proud of a really awesome tournament that celebrates the different parts of Auckland, so it’s quite tribal.​"

La'auli says there could be an opportunity for an under-21 women's competition in the future.

Games will be broadcast on Sky Sport and Sky TV chief executive Martin Stewart says grassroots are the bedrock of New Zealand rugby.

"It’s very important that we keep promoting and showcasing the great talent that’s coming through and giving people a platform and we’re delighted to be part of this great new tournament for the Sir Michael Jones Trophy.​"

The competition is set to run every Saturday from October 3rd to October 24th, with venues and times for games still to be determined.