Tidah Leaupepe with New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson, Filo Tiatia and Saveatama Eroni Clarke. Photo: supplied.

Bridging the language barrier is one way Tidah Leaupepe hopes to encourage more Pasifika people into roles off the rugby field, Ashley Stanley writes. 

Over two thirds of the rugby playing population in Auckland is of Māori and Pacific descent. But only a very few make up roles off the field. 

Tidah Leaupepe wants to help change that. 

The proud Samoan-Tongan woman has been working at Auckland Rugby for three years and is involved with a number of initiatives focused on “opening up the gates.”

Last month Leaupepe delivered the first RugbySmart programme in Samoan and Tongan languages with the support of her communities. Then the sport and recreation graduate went to the South Island to help lead Ako Wāhine, a programme to get more women involved in off-the-field roles. 

RugbySmart is an injury prevention programme for coaches and referees, created by New Zealand Rugby and ACC in 2001 to help decrease injuries by teaching a range of skills to keep safe. And it’s working. 

But generally there’s been a low uptake from Pacific people to complete the programme. But the 45 people who attended the “first of its kind” evening at the Manukau Rovers Rugby Football Club in Māngere in August, suggests the new approach is resonating with these communities and was considered a major success. 

“I really underestimated the value of this,” says Leaupepe, Auckland Rugby’s delivery lead for central Auckland. “I didn’t understand the magnitude until they arrived and I saw it with my own eyes, to see how connected they were, how much fun they were having, and how they wanted more.”

Tidah Leaupepe (front of the room) addressing participants at the first RugbySmart programme delivered in Samoan and Tongan. Photo: supplied. 

Language is one of the barriers stopping people from attending. But Leaupepe knew she could easily remove the obstacle by speaking and collaborating with her rugby community members across provincial unions. 

“We got the resources translated into our languages and asked people to facilitate,” she says. “So we’ve got it in Tongan, Samoan and Niuean. I’m working on Cook Island and Māori, and also trying to find a contact for Fiji in Auckland.”

From just one session in Samoan and Tongan, those who were there started asking about other opportunities in the game. “There are people who now want to become educators, who want to become facilitators, and they want to see more of this stuff in our community,” says Leaupepe, who’s also part of NZ Rugby’s coach advisory group, responsible for developing the game across Aotearoa. 

It all started when Leaupepe put her hand up to help in Māori and Pacific rugby in June.

Tidah Leaupepe (fourth from right) and Auckland club rugby delegates and board members at Eden Park. Photo: supplied. 

The mother-of-two understands the position she holds at Auckland Rugby is responsible to the communities she serves, so she invited the club rugby delegates and boards to Eden Park to introduce herself and open the floor to ask how they could work together. 

“You know how we are as Pacific people – everyone comes to the table, you share what you want, everyone says their peace at the table, and we just talanoa [loosely translated as talk],” Leaupepe says. 

“They said it was really cool to be invited to the office and to get to know everybody and share our stories, and then discuss what we would like to see in this space.”

There’s a lot of knowledge and expertise that can be shared across rugby communities, says Leaupepe. “I want to provide more opportunities for our people. So I want to open the gates,” she says.  “We’re always talking about the solutions lying within the community, so all we need to do is provide them with that pathway to be able to develop and grow in this space.”

The former Auckland women’s development coach lives by these beliefs which have shaped the approach. 

Leaupepe knew she had to work across unions – in the RugbySmart case with Counties Manukau – and those who are strong rugby advocates, to be able to deliver the programme in Samoan and Tongan. 

There was an impressive line up of women leading the workshop modules including Manusina’s most capped player, Ala Bakulich- Leavasa, Samoan teammate Sosefina Leaitua, Cook Island Sevens captain Margarette Nena and former Black Fern Doris Taufateau – now a Tongan women’s coach. They were four of 11 facilitators on the night (seven were women). 

Former All Black Saveatama Eroni Clarke, NZ Rugby’s Pasifika engagement manager,  opened the evening, and paid tribute to the momentous occasion for Pacific communities, nearly 20 years after the RugbySmart programme was initially rolled out nationwide. 

A successful turnout for the first RugbySmart programme delivered in the Samoan and Tongan languages. Photo: supplied. 

Leaupepe isn’t resting on her laurels. She  knows this is a massive step but at the same time understands “we’re just scraping the surface.”

“My thinking now is, ‘What else is there that I can help you with?’,” she says. “I’m just trying to dig a little bit deeper because I still think we are at the surface level of some of the issues. We just want to work together and do more.”

In her day-to-day role at Auckland Rugby, Leaupepe is primarily responsible for looking after the schools in central Auckland, from coach and player development, organising representative teams and tournaments and offering resources and expertise to the region’s clubs.

This year, before Level 4 Covid restrictions, Lauepepe and her team had delivered around 30 RugbySmart sessions in person.

The possibilities to use this tailor-made approach for other non-playing rugby roles, such as referees, is Leaupepe’s next target. “I have been contacted by ACC and other codes to have a look at how they can adopt this approach,” she says. 

“I’ve also been approached by a few of the provincial unions in the South Island when I was down there, asking about it. They’re wanting more on how to engage with our Pacific community.” 

Leaupepe was in the south to help lead the Ako Wāhine programme – a dedicated women’s rugby-educator initiative run out of NZ Rugby and aligned to World Rugby’s women’s strategy.

They may be two different programmes but “they have the same essence… They’re based on our cultural values, traditions and how we do things,” says Leaupepe, originally a participant in the programme. 

Working with the creator and main lead of Ako Wāhine, Vania Wolfgramm, has been “really cool.” The former Black Fern and Black Ferns sevens representative is now the game development manager of women’s rugby at NZ Rugby. 

“A real benefit of being a part of Ako Wāhine is it just fills my cup,” says Leaupepe. “So when I go to those courses and I facilitate them, it reminds me of my obligation to our community. And how to pave the way forward for the next person and bring them up.”

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