One way NZ Rugby could start putting nice words into meaningful action to improve the culture of the game is by adopting elements of te ao Māori, argues Dr Jeremy Hapeta

Comment: Whare across the motu have been tuning into the Rugby World Cup to support the Black Ferns as they cut a track to the final. The superb skills and athleticism on display has been a huge drawcard, generating enthusiastic support for the players and their teams.

The Black Ferns, which has a large contingent of Māori and Pasifika players, have had to overcome a number of challenges in the lead-up to the Cup, including the fallout from their troubled 2021 European tour, which led to the appointment of new coaches.

A lot of teams put a lot of emphasis on culture and getting that right. But how coaches go about creating culture can become problematic, especially if it’s a colonial, Western way of understanding and creating culture, many Māori and Pacifika players may not flourish because they don’t come from that worldview.

As relational peoples we place much more emphasis on whanaungatanga, or establishing relationships, as that is key for Māori and Pasifika people both on and off the field. It is what gives our people more of an edge. Unfortunately, traditional coaching practices place more emphasis on some other elements of team culture rather than what we would perceive to be just as, if not more, important.

A colonial coaching style is very prescribed and transactional, especially nowadays in professional sport where it’s “We pay you, so it’s your obligation to do what you’re told when you’re told to do it”.

However, I believe a lot of Māori and Pasifika players are more invested in transformational outcomes than superficial transactions. Coaches who apply a colonial paradigm either don’t want to or know how to change and adapt to suit the diversity of cultures within their teams.

They don’t think change is necessary because of their privilege and because they have taken for granted ways of being and doing, which of course they are not conscious of.

The recent appointment of a Māori director of culture and leadership to the Black Ferns’ team, Allan Bunting, has been a positive move.

That’s a new initiative. To have someone who oversees and drives culture within a team is exciting and well overdue. If culture is so fundamental to a team, then you need these positions. When you have so many Māori and Pacific players in a team it is extremely important to re-define what culture is – whose definition are you using and what exactly do you mean by it?

For Māori, culture includes our taonga (valued treasures), like tikanga and te reo – that’s what culture is, it is bigger than us as players.

Increasing female athletes’ visibility via airtime is crucial to encouraging young players to become involved.

The whole ‘see her, be her’ movement shows the significance of being able to watch these role models perform on the national and global stage. For example, from seeing the Farah Palmer Cup on TV to the inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki competition and now with the Women’s Rugby World Cup, the pathway is more clearly defined.

Māori and Pacific women are attracted to the game because it is valued highly within their communities.

It’s a game that brings us mana, not just to the players, but also to their whānau and communities. It’s an opportunity for us, even though the playing field is not level, to celebrate our successes.

However, some of New Zealand Rugby’s provincial unions need to do more to support the women’s game. I think women want to be heard and feel listened too. So, they need greater opportunities to voice their viewpoints in a way where their opinions are genuinely valued.

While societal attitudes are changing, some coaching and management practices aren’t, and the women’s game is not getting a fair share of the resources or marketing compared to their male counterparts.

Essentially, rugby needs to start putting nice words into meaningful actions. Sport NZ’s recent research into the general public’s interest in sports showed that 40 percent of sport followers watch men’s rugby, and the next most popular sport is women’s rugby at 29 percent. Yes, they are second equal with men’s cricket, men’s football, and men’s rugby league (all 29 percent).

The women’s game is much sharper now it is such an exciting brand of rugby at all levels; both semi-finals last weekend are my case and point.

But locally, the game has more work to do if NZ Rugby aspires to remain competitive with other nations. The European nations resource it appropriately. Their players are full-time professionals, you can see that their standards have improved.

Now there is a lot of curiosity and interest in the game, and NZ Rugby must ensure environments are friendlier, welcoming, and dismantle barriers to sustained participation.

This column first appeared as an article by Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence

Dr Jeremy Hapeta is co-director of Te Koronga and senior lecturer in Māori Physical Education and Health at the University of Otago.

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