What began as an attempt to attract a new and diverse market has developed into a colourful, multi-cultural adventure for Counties Manukau Rugby League.

When South Auckland league administrators examined options to grow the 13-man code within the region, the Asian and Indian communities appealed as untapped resources.

The Warriors and NRL competition were well supported within both communities but various cultural barriers saw their young men hesitant to play the game.

A core group of a dozen aspiring players were eager to try their hand and what they lacked in physicality and understanding of the game, they more than made up for in enthusiasm, passion, and a willingness to learn.

CMRL general manager Kasey King made it his responsibility to nurture their interest and began devising a plan to develop their skills and conditioning to enable them to play the sport safely.

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Dominic Prasad loses possession tackled by Nascea Mughal. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"I looked at some of the stats and it said that by 2020, 20 per cent of Aucklanders would be of Asian descent," King explained. "It made good sense to me that that was a market that we should be targeting, not just from a participation aspect, but also with what that community could bring to the game in terms of business nous, good work ethic, and community spirit."

King anticipated religious differences and cultural issues might inhibit the group but quickly discovered that physicality was the biggest barrier to them playing league.

"The only barrier was physicality. The boys didn't want to take on the big Maori and Pacifica boys because of their natural athleticism."

A proposal to play in a weight-restricted competition was rejected, with the group doubting their skills would measure up, and it was decided they would play among themselves.


Captain Ravi Kumar (right) pumps up his team at halftime. Photo / Jason Oxenham

King enlisted a coach to take them through the basics and a boom in interest saw enough players for two teams, and the genesis for what would become the Ethnic League was formed.

"We were dealing with Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Hindus. One boy said to me, 'a year ago we wouldn't have sat around the table with this group because of the different religious divides'. The game brought them together and broke down so many barriers."

After testing the waters with a best of three-game series a dearth of player numbers at the Pukekohe club presented the chance for some of King's crew to make the jump into the open club competition.


The Auckland Wasps prepare for battle. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"I gave them some warnings: Pukekohe is in the third division so it's quite rugged and unstructured and also it is more physical and there is a gang affiliation in the area as well. They said 'yep, we're in', with no hesitation.

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"We got a hiding every week but they learned a lot and realised that with the training they had done they were able to mix it physically and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

"The Black Power community was supporting the team largely made up of Indian boys that have been brought in. It was a really interesting dynamic but everyone embraced it, including the gang members themselves."

The end of the club season allowed the chance for the Ethnic League to get off the ground and with the aid of the local Auckland Indian radio station, four teams began competing for the Radio Tarana Cup under the umbrella logo of the Counties Manukau Stingrays.

"Three teams are made up of Indian descent and one made up largely of Filipinos and also Chinese as well. They've got to have at least 50 per cent ethnicity. They've got Fijian Indians in there and some that are half Chinese or half Indian and that's what we wanted to do."


The Auckland Wasps celebrate their victory against the Counties Manukau Piranhas. Photo / Jason Oxenham

To help raise the competition's profile and to provide the players with something to aspire to, the Ethnic League games were staged as curtain raisers to the National Premiership competition.

A six-week round robin culminated in the Auckland Wasps claiming a 30-14 win over the Counties Manukau Stingrays in the final.

"This kind of competition will build the awareness of rugby league in the ethnic culture, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, that's why we all come together," explained Wasps captain Ravi Kumar. "We had big mana for this tournament coming in and luckily enough we made the finals. They were all strangers to me but as a team we have a good union and are like brothers now."

With the Ethnic League now in place, King's ultimate goal is to establish an international Indian team.


An injured Jasdeep Dhaliwai is helped from the field. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"I'm sharing this dream with the boys now and I'm telling them 'you guys are pioneers. You guys are actually potentially laying a foundation for future league players to come out of India'," he said. "If we can create pathways and introduce them to clubs some of them may go on to representative stuff. One day we could potentially talk to sporting bodies in India about what's happening and the structures we have in place and who knows where it could go."