The third edition of the Rugby League Pacific Series – to be held from November 15-17 – promises to be the biggest yet.

Staged at Hoon Hay Park for the second time after the inaugural 2016 event was hosted by Wainoni Park, the Pacific Series has quickly gained an esteemed place on New Zealand’s rugby league calendar – and organisers are using its rapid growth to experiment with new initiatives this year.

For the first time a girls youth age-group competition will be played alongside the men’s, women’s and boys juniors grades, a watershed development not only for the Pacific Series, but also for rugby league in Canterbury.

Teams from Wellington and Auckland are set to appear in the Pacific Series, which has brought together teams from Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, Maori, Cook Islands, Papua New Guinean and European backgrounds over the past two years.

The Pacific Series will also be officially aligned with Canterbury Rugby League for the first time, while more structured administration around the event should ensure its long-term stability and viability.

Sua Tauti, a driving force behind the inception of the Pacific Series alongside Sol Smith, is the chairman of South Island Pasifika & Sports Association Incorporated, a group set up to help solidify organisation around the event.

“It’s been great to see the development of the nations coming together, the cultures coming together and it’s a bit more meaningful when you play for your country as well,” Tauti says.

“Through that the whole vision around why we wanted to do it was to engage with the culture side of it as well. I was born in Samoa, but Sol didn’t know too much about his culture.

“Rugby league was always the vehicle, but the culture was the point of difference.

“The other key point was to give Christchurch players an opportunity and more exposure. Some people think all the good players are just up in Auckland, so it was a good way to show our Pasifika players there is a pathway from the junior level all the way up.”

One of the many positive upshots of the Pacific Series’ success has been its effectiveness as a recruitment tool.

Rugby union players have been steered into the Canterbury Rugby League competition after enjoying their first taste of 13-a-side footy in the Pacific Series.

“When we first started the majority of the players came from rugby (union). In the Samoa team we had a good mix of league and rugby players that would come and play for our team. We scheduled it at the end of the year to give everyone an opportunity to play,” Tauti explains.

“Not only through the senior grades, but the juniors as well. That’s been a highlight for us, that we’ve seen players change codes after playing for PNG or Fiji. A lot of them prefer rugby league to (union) after playing in the Pacific Series.

“We’ve had a few rugby teams jump on board to play in the junior grades so that’s a whole new mix as well, we’ve never done that before.”

Tauti says the ongoing development of the smaller nations is at the forefront of the Pacific Series organisers’ ambitions moving forward.

“Obviously our Samoan teams are quite strong, there’s nine to 12 players in the Bulls squad alone (with Samoan heritage). For us it’s not about winning now, it’s about growing the smaller nations to be able to compete with Samoa.

“We want to make it a more even playing field amongst the teams.”

Tauti also hails the formation of a committee for the event and the confirmation of a relationship with CRL as major steps in the evolution of the Pacific Series.

“It’s the first year we’ve formed a proper committee and we’ve been working pretty hard,” he says.

“It’s about making sure everything is above board and doing everything right on that side of things – not just on the field but the behind-the-scenes stuff. We’ve got some really good people in the mix now.

“We have a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with Canterbury Rugby League, this will be the first time that we’ve had it. The relationship in the past probably wasn’t that great, but this will be the first year that (CRL) are working alongside us and supporting us.

“That’s been one of the really good things about this year. Sometimes it just takes a while to build relationships like this but obviously Canterbury Rugby League are a big part of the game in Christchurch so we had to try and work together rather than try and do things differently.

“It’s been a blessing for us. And Southern Zone (general manager) Steve Martin for the last couple of years has been our middle man (between us and) Canterbury Rugby League, he’s given us a lot of support behind the scenes.”

But arguably the most significant development for 2018 is the creation of a youth girls grade (13-to-17-year-olds).

Female participation in rugby league has skyrocketed in recent years, enjoying unprecedented exposure in New Zealand courtesy of the Kiwi Ferns’ success and the first-ever NRLW competition this year.

Opportunities for girls aged in between the grades where girls and boys are permitted to play in the same team and the senior grades are limited, however, which is something the Pacific Series is aiming to help rectify.

“This could be a pathway for them. It’s great for us to be able to start a youth age-group girls competition and start to make that happen so it can start to happen at clubs moving forward,” Tauti enthuses.

“We don’t mind testing some stuff at the Pacific Series because if it works it will help the game later on. We’re up for anything if it fits in with our purpose and is going to help grow the game.”

They have had approximately 30 girls register in under three weeks, and Tauti says they are aiming for another 20-30 players to put together four teams that will be split into 15-and-under and 17-and-under brackets.

Coaching prior to the proposed nine-a-side competitions will be provided to ensure first-time players are not thrown in at the deep end.

“A lot of these girls have never played before so they’re really wary of what it will be like, so we’ll be really cautious. Our path has to be really professional around health and safety for them, because we don’t want to put them on the field and then they get injured by doing the wrong things.

“The team has got a checklist for players in the junior grades around tackle techniques and teaching all the basic foundations.

“We want to make sure the youth girls enjoy it and want to move forward and think about playing rugby league in the following years. There’s been big interest after only putting it out there two or three weeks ago. They’re not Pasifika teams as such, more invitational teams. Doesn’t matter what culture, it’s about growing that age-group.”

Of course, the on-field action is only a part of what the Pacific Series has to offer. First and foremost it is a celebration of culture.

“Every nation will have their own Pasifika flavour of food. We’ve gone out to the communities around that space, so people that come along will get to taste the different foods of each culture,” Tauti says.

“And our opening ceremony night is a little bit different to previous years. Every nation – the Cook Islands, the PNG, the Samoan and Tongan teams – we’re looking for their cultural community to come together and do some form of performance to showcase their culture.

“Obviously Christchurch is not that big in terms of the Pasifika community, so a lot of cultural stuff that you see here is Samoan culture, through PolyFest and that sort of thing. We want to make sure every nation has some awareness and recognition of their culture.

“That’s one of things we’re really looking forward to seeing, because it’s the community that’s coming out to do it. The team focuses on what they have to do, but you have the community backing that team and when they come together like that it creates a really nice atmosphere around the whole Pacific Series.”

The opening ceremony will be hosted at ARA on Wednesday, November 14, with the Pacific Series unfolding over the following three days at Hoon Hay Park.

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