It isn’t usually newsworthy in Australian rugby league when one of the least fashionable teams in the English Super League changes coaches. Last week, however, a small yet monumental barrier was broken down that should make the National Rugby League (NRL) sit up and take notice.
When Wakefield Trinity appointed former New Zealand and Samoa international Willie Poching as their head coach, it marked the first time a Samoan had been named head coach of a first grade rugby league team anywhere in the world. <
This is an astounding fact given the huge contribution made by that island and its large diaspora to the sport. Indeed, excepting former New Zealand Warriors coach Stephen Kearney, a Māori, and former Australia and New South Wales star Jim Dymock, of Tongan descent, Poching is only the third Polynesian coach to be entrusted with the running of an elite professional rugby league club.
“I knew, and it was something that I had thought about when I started coaching,” said Poching. “I’m very proud of Samoans and particularly the Pacific input into rugby league.”
“For a long time, since I was a kid watching Fred Ah Kuoi, James Leuluai and Kurt Sorensen play over here in the UK, and John Fifita and Olsen Filipaina play in Australia, the early pioneers for Pacific people in our game. I used to watch them when I was a kid and aspire to be like them. They were my heroes growing up.”
“Since then, I’ve followed the path of what Pacific people have done and the journey of our people through rugby league. On top of that, my Dad was really big on Pacific rugby and was one of the people who helped to start Samoan rugby league back in 1986. I knew it (being the first Samoan coach) was a possibility and it was something that I strove for.”
The lack of representation at the elite level of coaching stands in strong contrast to the massive overrepresentation of Pasifika (Pacific Islander) and Māori among rugby league players.
According to the most recent figures, 60% of NRL players are non-white: an estimated 12% are Indigenous Australian, making close to 50% Pasifika. For such a large cohort to have produced two coaches who have coached a grand total of 50 NRL games between them speaks to a serious problem within the organizational structure of the competition.
It calls to mind the situation in the National Football League (NFL) in the early 2000s, when the Rooney Rule, which obliged NFL clubs to interview at least one minority candidate for a vacant head coaching role, was established to help redress that balance.
The league managed to increase the representation at head coach level from 6% in 2003 when the rule came into effect to 22% by 2006, though that number has now dropped again. The rule was extended in 2020 to include all coaching roles, as well as major administrative positions.
The English Football League (EFL) has since adopted a similar rule to their competitions, while companies such as Facebook, Patreon and Pinterest also operate hiring structures that promote diversity through interview quotas.
Dr David Lakisa is a Samoan academic and the managing director of Talanoa Consultancy, and is perhaps one of the world’s foremost academics on the influence and contribution of Pasifika people in rugby league.
His recent paper, Managing Psychological Contracts: Employer-Employee Relations and non-athlete Pasifika professionals in the National Rugby League, co-written with Tracy Taylor and Daryl Adair (University of Technology Sydney) was published in the Journal of Global Sport Management and involved unprecedented research into the way Pacific Islanders (and Māori) are represented beyond the playing group in the NRL.
“Like many minority sporting groups, issues of mobility, migration, financial literacy and cultural identity are prevalent,” explains Lakisa.
“My research revealed four key socio-cultural drivers of Pacific influence: family or kinship networks; spirituality; cultural values and identity; and service attached to leadership. Together, these four hallmarks underpin Pacific expectations and contribution in the workplace.”
“In short, for any individual or organization to fully optimize their understanding, performance, and productivity with Pacific people, research revealed you must start with these distinctive hallmarks. That is where the psychological mismatch between employers and employees exists.”
“The game ought to be past the point of saturation in terms of cultural awareness and visibility, we have now arrived at the point of the professional era where Pacific cultural safety and leadership is a non-negotiable skill in the workplace. Sadly, this is not the case”
“NRL organizations are in a prime position to be at the forefront of Pacific competency. If I operated a labor hire company and 50% of my employees were of Indian, Chinese or African descent, how would that affect my managerial skills, my HR processes, my onboarding, my overall vision and cultural safety practices and policies? It affects everything, but clubs have not fully grasped that concept yet.”
“The Australian Football League (AFL) has made a charge for each club to employ an Indigenous Officer and my research reveals sporting organizations are brilliantly positioned to create roles such as ‘Pacific Engagement Managers’ who can work across various departments.”
“There’s a handful of wellbeing officers that are of Pasifika or Māori background, but no club has explicitly created a Pacific engagement manager role which is the reason why Talanoa Consultancy fills a workplace need. While we operate in a commercial reality, cultural capital investment is more needed than ever before”
“I was appointed Australia’s first Pacific Islander coaching and development officer for New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) and witnessed firsthand the significant difference a specific role which works with Pacific people can make in the labor force and in the rugby league community.”
African-American author Janet McDonald, who lived in Paris, once remarked that she was afforded different opportunities because she was based in France, where she was seen as American first and Black second, that she would not have received in her native New York. That same dynamic might well be true for Willie Poching in Wakefield.
Motu Tony, general manager football and high performance at New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) has followed a similar career path to Poching, playing the NRL before moving to the Super League in England, and starting his non-playing career in the Northern Hemisphere as general manager of football at Hull FC.
“I’m well aware of the challenges that are faced by Pasifika people in acquiring roles off the field,” he said. “I was very fortunate that, once I completed playing in 2012, I had the opportunity to study full time.”
“I had a Bachelor’s degree by then, and with the help of Rugby League Cares (the player welfare charity in the U.K.) and the University of Huddersfield, I was able to study a Masters of Business Administration program for a year. That helped me transition to a non-playing role, which I always wanted to do.”
“I wasn’t interested in coaching and I knew I couldn’t play forever, so I knew there would be an opportunity in the administration side. That’s how I got into it.”
For Tony, having people of Pasifika backgrounds in administrative positions is vital to ensuring stakeholders can thrive.
“I was born in Samoa, raised in New Zealand and most of my professional career was in the U.K., so that’s given me some experiences that have helped me to understand not only the athlete perspective but also the administration and the governance,” he said.
“Our playing population in New Zealand is 86% Māori and Pasifika, and I’ve been able to relate to our playing demographic and rugby league community while understanding the nuances from our administration perspective.”
“I think the message is quite clear that further Pasifika and Māori representation is required in rugby league because the game has heavy representation from those cultures in the playing population, but not so much in the off-field leadership roles.”
One of the trailblazers for Pasifika representation in the business side of the NRL is Don Mann, who was general manager of commercial and head of football operations at New Zealand Warriors and now is CEO of Pacific Media Network, a public media broadcaster in New Zealand that serves the Pacific population in 10 languages.
Mann, of Tongan and Māori descent, has been one of the highest-profile Pasifika figures on the business side of rugby league, and explained the issues that still exist in the underrepresentation of Pacific people in mainstream sports media.
“It’s still a significant area that needs addressing in rugby league,” said Mann. “If you look at the coverage on TV, there’s still a lack of diversity when it comes to ethnicity in who is commentating on the games and who speaks about it during the week.”
“If you watch NRL 360 and the Matty Johns Show, it’s primarily middle-aged white Anglo-Saxon men. It’s fantastic that Yvonne Sampson, an Indigenous Australian, is now fronting NRL 360 and that Benji Marshall, a Māori, has a slot, but there’s still an absence of ethnic voices framing the conversation.”
“As far back as 2001, I introduced phonetic spelling of Pacific names in team lists to ensure Polynesian names were being pronounced correctly. Others such as Nigel Vagana have campaigned repeatedly to address this most basic issue.
“Twenty years on, names are still being butchered on a weekly basis. It’s lazy, shows a lack of respect, and is a byproduct of a lack of representation of Pacific people and Pacific voices in the media.”
“During previews and reviews throughout the week, Pacific and Indigenous Australian athletes are spoken about in a different way to others. I don’t think those that are doing it even realize what they’re doing.”
“Look at the way players such as Jason Taumalolo (a Tongan-New Zealander), Tevita Pangai Junior (a Tongan-Australian) or Latrell Mitchell (a Birrbay and Wiradjuri man) are spoken about: they are held to a higher standard versus players of a similar status.”
“Those who are controlling the narrative will say ‘Tevita Pangai Junior needs to do this, Latrell Mitchell must do that”, and they’re held to a different standard. They’re spoken about with different expectations to, for example, Isaah Yeo, Angus Crichton or Cameron Murray.”
“Even Jerome Luai is spoken about differently to Nathan Cleary (whom he plays directly alongside for the Penrith Panthers). Jerome is measured on his emotional contribution. Nathan is framed as a leader. They are narratives rooted in stereotypes.”
“It’s almost like every week, players of color have to prove their place in the team. Non-Pacific and non-Indigenous Australian players are not spoken about in that way. In fact, the journeyman, no-frills Aussie battler is held in some kind of mythical esteem.”
“As a priority, First Nations Australians should have a vital role to play in media coverage, because you’re in Australia, so I think it’s tremendous that you have people like Yvonne Sampson in such pivotal and key roles. There needs to be more of it.”
“If you look at the commentary teams, one of the great things Fox Sports has done is having First Nations Australian women present coverage, through Yvonne Sampson and Hannah Hollis. First Nation men however are mostly reduced to guest appearances or sideline commentary roles. Given that now 60% of the players are now First Nation, Māori or Pacific, it now needs to come through in the broader areas of the media.”
“It would be good to see that in journalism, commentary, critical review and analysis. The big programs during the week like NRL 360 and the commentary of the games still lack ethnic diversity in the anchor roles.”
The Rooney Rule was initially enacted for head coaches in the NFL, but has more recently been expanded to include all leadership roles off the field, both in coaching and administration.
“It’s a wonderful starting point,” said David Lakisa. “Not to say that a Rooney Rule is going to completely prevent tokenism, but implementing a similar policy is certainly going to help with increased opportunities and cultural understanding.”
“My research found strategic plans in Pacific sport should take into consideration critical mass, context and competency levels. I call these the 3 Cs of Pacific contribution.”
“They acknowledge and validate critical mass, and the critical mass is obvious. No other game in the world has that mass of Pacific representation.”
“In terms of context: there’s Pacific influence in New Zealand rugby union, but that’s still very different to an Australian context where only 1.4% of the general population is Pacific compared to our New Zealand counterparts of approximately 11%.”
“You can’t just copy and paste something from New Zealand or the U.S. African-Americans in the NBA or NFL might be similar in terms of mobility and migration, but it can also be very different. Why? Because the history is very different. That’s critical.”
“The first fields that we labored on in Australia were sugarcane fields. We were hired as indentured laborers, slaves if you will, or blackbirded. Turn the clock 150 years later and look how different the fields of mobility that we perform on are.”
“In terms of cultural competence, research also found while progress has been in some areas of the game, there is still much work to be done. Evidence-based learning indicates this ought to start at the organizational and governance level.”
“You’re talking about an inequity issue,” said Don Mann of the Rooney Rule. “It’s a mechanism to address equity or the lack of equity, not uncommon in the areas of major societal, political or structural reform.”
“Without affirmative action, change simply won’t happen. If I think about the NRL and what percentage of the players are a certain makeup, it just makes good common sense in terms of managing and leading people that your front office, boardroom and coaching setup reflect your workforce.”
“If you think globally about what is happening, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 30 years ago in Australia, Arthur Beetson, an Indigenous Australian, was coaching the Sydney Roosters and at State of Origin level. There’s not an Indigenous head coach in the NRL right now. I would argue there has been no progress.”
“If you step back and look at the global stage of contact sport, it’s easy to get excited that Willie Poching is coaching at Wakefield. In rugby union, there’s Pat Lam at the Bristol Bears, Aaron Mauger at the Moana Pasifika franchise and the Australian Wallabies coach is a Cook Islander, Dave Rennie. On one hand, it’s easy to get excited, but the reality is that these appointments are few and far between.”
The advantages to having leadership, both in coaching and administration, who understand the cultural background of players should speak for themselves.
“If 50% of your playing group are of Pacific background, then you cannot afford to get your cultural competency wrong. The playing group will chew you out,” said David Lakisa. “We’re a collectivist culture.”
“Not in a bad way, but if half of your squad have a certain value system and they will veer towards someone who is culturally adept, has a spiritual background – even if they aren’t religious, but displays an authentic spiritual nature – is family-oriented, understands culture and knows about servant-leadership. Get that and you’ve got half your playing group down.”
“Suffice to say, the successful clubs of the past decade are led by head coaches who not only understand Pacific culture but more broadly human nature. They understand how Pacific athletes and their families operate.“
Motu Tony, who leads elite performance with the New Zealand Kiwis, can see this from a high level.
“The clubs that are successful have been able to meet the needs of their players,” he said. “Yes, they push them to be better each and every day, but also to embrace who they are and be comfortable with that identity, especially in the cultural aspect. That’s the challenge, not only for sports organizations, but all organizations.”
“How they work towards their goals without compromising the wellbeing and identity of their employees and players, and the successful clubs like the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters, or even U.K. clubs like St Helens have done it tremendously well. They manage to do it year in and year out.”
Don Mann has seen a change in the confidence Pacific players now have in publicly expressing their identity.
“The most important thing is that players are fully encouraged to be themselves and to be who they are,” he said. “I do see that: you look at the way players such as Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis got to a point in their careers where they openly expressed their Aboriginal roots.”
“It’s now common in Aotearoa New Zealand Super Rugby to hear Pacific and Māori players conduct bilingual interviews. I would love to see Pacific NRL players have the confidence to make that step.”
“Nonetheless, something as small as the Penrith Panthers’ Samoan players coming together at the end of the game in prayer, which is deeply a Pacific thing, is a big deal. From what I can see, players are expressing their identity on their own terms and in a manner they deem appropriate and that’s the most important thing.”
The Panthers’ prayer circle now often includes both Pacific and non-Pacific players, with non-Pacific players showing solidarity with their teammates.
“Pacific culture is very spiritual-based, often we view mental health through a spiritual lens,” said David Lakisa.
“Spirituality is often overlooked as a critical part of Pacific athlete wellbeing. The tide is changing, which the research is showing. It’s not necessarily an ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather it’s about shared spaces and shared knowledge.”
“The perfect example is: if you create Pacific programs, how do the non-Pacific players feel about it? Research shows that, more often than not, they saw it as something that they needed.”
“A lot of the Pacific players are Australian, born and raised here, so it’s more of a shared space or providing culturally safe platforms for people to (re)learn or (re)connect with their culture and lived experiences.”
“Clubs have yet to latch on to the idea of the investment into cultural capital in professional sport. The commercial reality has yet to catch up to the cultural significance. That’s where the gap remains for now.”
Poching is proud to be the first Samoan coach and to blaze the trail for Pacific coaches in elite rugby league.
“I’ve persevered and stuck at it,” he said. “Coaching was something that I wanted to do even when I played. I’m not sure even if we have a lot of our people that want to go into coaching, and hopefully, by me being in this position now, I can show that it’s possible.”
“I’m the first one to do it for Samoans, so I’m not following anyone. I hope I can give people someone to follow and we can have more.”
“The numbers participating in the game now are massive, and there’s all sorts of avenues—through what David is doing, through what Motu is doing and through what Don is doing—that you can still stay in the game. It’s important that our people stay in the game.”
“When we talk about commentators and broadcasting, we’re just waiting for the doors to be opened. My door opened by sticking at it and sticking around. There were times in the last 15 years as an assistant coach that I did question it, whether I was ever going to get it or whether we should go home, but such was my desire to become a head coach that I stuck at it.”
“Thankfully, I’ve achieved what I wanted to and now the hard work really starts. I’m thankful to the club and the board for giving me the opportunity, and I don’t think I’ve got it on the back of my culture, I think I’ve got it on my ability and the body of work that I’ve put in to get this.”
“The more people that we can get into coaching, the more head coaches that we’ll start to get, and that’s where we need to get to: getting more of us on the ladder.”