Rugby league greats in New Caledonia to learn about Pacific Islands

Current and former players from Australia's National Rugby League (NRL) visited the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in Noumea, New Caledonia, last week to learn more about development challenges and general life in the Pacific Islands region. 

The NRL, SPC, the Australian National University and the Australian Government have joined forces to stage a Pacific leadership workshop for NRL Pasifika Ambassadors and enable them to assist in development projects in Australia and throughout the Pacific region. 

Around 44 per cent of NRL players have Pacific Islands heritage.

While the Pacific is well known for its rugby talent and idyllic beaches, many other NRL players and Australian sports fans know little about the region's diversity, rich cultures and traditions, and some of the significant challenges facing Pacific Islanders.

Taking part in the workshop are: Nigel Vagana, Dean Widders, Solomon Haumono, Mark Deweer, Steve Meredith, Ruan Sims (NRL HQ/Jillaroo), Ben Henry (NZ Warriors), Joshua McGuire (Brisbane Broncos), David Solomona (Queensland), Luisa Avaiki (Melbourne Storm/ NZ Ferns) and Clinton Toopi (Gold Coast Titans).

SPC Director-General, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, said the Pacific Community welcomed partnering with the NRL and Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to promote rugby league as a tool for development, including income opportunities for young people.

"Playing sport like rugby league has many benefits for health, well-being and person growth, as well as learning about teamwork, and it's a good economic option for young people who take it up professionally," Dr Tukuitonga said.

The training is being led by Dr Roannie Ng Shiu, a Pacific Studies Outreach and Research Fellow with the ANU's Society and Governance in Melanesia program, and the Deputy Director of SPC’s Social Development Division, Leituala Kuiniselani Toelupe Tago-Elisara, alongside scientific and technical specialists from SPC. 

"The aim is that by the end of the workshop today, the participants will have a better sense of current issues in the Pacific and of development in the Pacific more broadly, including serious issues like climate change, youth unemployment and obesity," Dr Ng Shui said.

Speaking at SPC headquarters in Noumea, Dean Widders said, "Some of the key messages that have come through in the discussions are around the whole area of cultural diversity and the importance of knowing one’s culture; the need to be connected to one’s values as the way to ensure responsive development interventions."

"This workshop has highlighted some key areas of concern for our Pacific Island community. I look forward to taking the information received over these few days to make a difference not just in our NRL community but our Pacific Island community as a whole," Ruan Sims said.

According to Ms Toelupe Tago-Elisara, the NRL group welcomed the opportunity to learn about SPC's social development and public health work.

"As they strive to lead and advocate for social change within their own environments as NRL players and Pasifika Ambassadors, the players and officials now have a better appreciation of the social issues and challenges we face with our Pacific Community members," she said. 

The 22 Pacific Islands and their ocean areas (called Exclusive Economic Zones) span some 30 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean, an area the size of Africa.

Pacific Island people have a history of resilience based on their traditions of sustainable use of resources, but they are also exceptionally vulnerable to climate change and disasters, and to the social and economic challenges that come with living on small islands in remote locations.