PolySaturated : illuminating the experiences of Polynesian athletes in professional rugby league.

Type of content
Theses / Dissertations
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Thesis discipline
Health Sciences
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
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Borell, Phillip John

Polynesian athletes represent almost 50% of the Australian National Rugby League’s (NRL) top tier player contracts. The proportion of Polynesian professional rugby league players has trended upward from the mid-1990s and continues to grow with significant numbers of young Polynesian athletes coming through NRL pathways and junior systems. A spate of suicides of young Polynesian players in recent years highlight the difficulties faced by young men and particularly Polynesians in the NRL. With the increasing influence of Polynesian athletes in the NRL it is critical to draw from player experience in an effort to further understand the people and cultures that form such an integral part of contemporary professional rugby league.

While there is a significant body of scholarly work in rugby league globally, there is limited literature that examines Polynesian contributions to the sport and the experiences of those Polynesian men. One aim of this doctoral thesis is to illuminate Polynesian experiences in professional rugby league to help better understand the complexities of being Polynesian in professional sport.

Employing a qualitative research methodology, this research prioritises kaupapa Māori and pan-Pacific research methods. Pūrākau (oral tradition, stories and storytelling) and Talanoa (conversation and storytelling) are used alongside Narrative Inquiry to explore the experiences of 10 Polynesian men in professional rugby league. Participants were selected based on a Polynesian whakapapa (genealogy) and participation in professional rugby league or professional pathways (junior grades). Participants’ experience levels included: NRL pathways and under 20s teams; early stages of professional NRL and Super League Europe (SLE) careers and NRL and SLE first grade.

Participants shared their pūrākau (stories) through talanoa (conversations) and revealed insights into the emergent themes. Findings suggest that while there is no ‘one model fits all’ for understanding Polynesian experiences in professional rugby league, there are notable commonalities: the role of the whānau/aiga (family), pressure, expectation and the need for culturally appropriate support initiatives, and the complexities of modern Polynesian masculinity. The familial unit emerges as a complex space with the potential to, both, support and undermine player experiences. Support initiatives exist in professional rugby league but participants felt they were not tailored to the cultural nuances that shape Polynesian worldviews. Masculine identity and the concept of a distinct Polynesian masculinity also influence young Polynesian men and their experiences in professional rugby league. These themes are complex and interrelated and can be employed to better support Polynesian experiences in professional rugby league.

Using the metaphor of waka ama the ‘Te Waka Kōtihi’ model contains the takere (main hull), kiato (cross arms/braces) and ama (outrigger/flotation) as the fundamental elements of the waka ama. Each of these parts of the waka ama need to work cohesively together for the waka to navigate challenging waters: the takere represents professional rugby league as a vehicle capable of floating but with limited stability; the ama is the whanau/aiga and provides the necessary stability for turbulent waters; and the two kiato bind the takere and ama through identity and support. The Te Waka Kōtihi model is offered as a means of illustrating the functions and intersections of the research themes. The metaphor, as a visual representation of the findings, serves as a way of communicating the results in a way that demonstrates research by, for and with Polynesians. By using Polynesian research methods to listen to the narratives of Polynesian players and understanding their cultural heritage more deeply, this research can inform a more inclusive and supportive environment for Polynesians in the NRL and highlights the strengths of Indigenous research methods more generally.

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