An innovative programme has been set up to support young Pasifika rugby players moving into the Western Bay.
The Pasifika Life Rugby Academy (PLRA) is designed to provide a network of assistance to the increasing numbers of young Pasifika rugby players playing the game here.
Groups like PLRA play important roles in nurturing the progress of the young rugby talent in Auckland and Wellington, especially in the crucial period after players leave secondary school.
Ati Aaifou-Olive has set up PLRA through the Tauranga Sports Club after moving up from Wellington three years ago.
"Over the last three years there seems to be a big trend of Pasifika players coming into the Bay and rugby clubs are starting to get more interest in them. But there seems to be a lack of understanding in the culture and how to get more out of the players and make them feel more part of the grassroots community," Aaifou-Olive said.
"A lot of players would not have felt they belonged to a community. The clubs do well in terms of looking after them from the rugby side but Pasifika really need a community to feel part of in terms of life support, employment, where they live and how to live in the Bay. Then clubs are going to get more out of them."
Bay of Plenty has the potential to really grow their rugby with Pasifika but it is just knowing how to do it really, Aifou-Olive said.
"Definitely where we all want to head is to be able to compete with the bigger cities. I do some work with the Bay union but they can only offer so much to clubs in terms of resources.
"I really believe it has to be clubs' responsibility now to grow Pasifika so I thought I would start with my club [Tauranga Sports]. There are school kids coming out from the islands on scholarships and then after school they either go home or if they stay here there are visa issues and who is going to look after them after college. Where do they go to, what can they do as many may not qualify for a work visa and immigration is tough at the moment.
"So I have been helping a lot of Pacific Island players over the last three years in the Bay, just to guide them in terms of employment, work visas and immigration."
One of the rising stars of Bay of Plenty rugby is flanker Ajay Mua who made his debut for the Steamers last year. He arrived at Tauranga Sports after starring for King's College in Auckland and 2016 NZ Schools.
"I think this Pasifika academy will go a long way in bringing the best out of players and that sense of bonding on and off the field," he said.
"If we go on the field knowing we have full support it is just one less thing to worry about. All we can do is go on and play the best we can not just for ourselves but all the people we are playing for in the community."
Pauly Hopoi, another Tauranga Sports player, said the PLRA was a positive move that would greatly help the Pasifika players.
"I have seen island boys in the past come here with the wrong attitude and turn around pretty fast and go back to Auckland. Everything in the past has been about the 80 minutes. We have a lot of clubs here with great cultures we are going to work with as well."
Tauranga Sports head coach Euan Mackintosh said it was a crucial part of the club moving forward.
"It is mainly around the principle if anyone wants to be a part of the club it is not just about the on-field rugby side of things. They should be made to feel welcome in the community and this may be their main link to the community," Mackintosh said.
"For us we put a lot of pressure on players to perform but if we forget about this side of things of life outside of the club we tend not to get it right. If players come to our club from a completely different culture, if they don't feel happy and welcome here in general then they are not going to perform at their best on the field.
"We are looking at this more holistically and it will definitely benefit us as a club with regard to playing outcomes."
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