Aoraki Rugby League – New Zealand’s newest rugby league frontier
01 December 2018 - Written by Keith Whitelock
Recently this website published an article by Stuart McLennan about international rugby league being the result of the personal sacrifice of individuals around the globe giving up their time, money and energy for the love of the game. Steve Mckeown and Nathan Robinson typify this statement as well as anyone that comes to mind.
Steve and Nathan created Aoraki Rugby League in 2016. Aoraki is the Maori name for Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. Aoraki Rugby League is run just outside of Christchurch and currently includes a 4-team senior competition along with multiple junior grades.
As with all strong Rugby League countries, the game in New Zealand struggles to gain a national footprint. Sure, Auckland and surrounding areas have a keen interest in the sport and often turn up on weekends ready to play at local grounds, but what about the South Island? The South Island’s love of the other Rugby code has made it very difficult for Rugby League to gain a foothold. The All Blacks are often all anyone wants to talk about.
We spoke with Steve about the triumphs, struggles and rewards of their ongoing venture to establish rugby league in their community. I am always fascinated to know the first steps one takes to establish a “foreign” sport from scratch. Many of us can’t even fathom the commitment and work required to maintain growth and interest amongst locals.
“Both myself and Nathan had toyed with the idea of setting up a club to play in the Otago competition though we did so independently of each other. We both sort of got to the same stage of needing players to progress further and it was at this stage that we both came to a grinding halt, though to be fair Nate was further down the track in terms of sponsorship than I was. Steve Martin, the CEO of Southern Zone rugby league (Southern Zone have oversight of rugby league on the South Island) asked if we knew each other, which we didn't at the time. From there, he suggested we put our heads together and get something going as a team. From here Nate had the great idea of setting up a local competition and we have been working at it from there”.
Up until this year, Aoraki Rugby League consisted of 3 senior men’s teams; Ashburton Barbarians, Timaru Rugby League Outlaws and Country Cowboys. This year saw the introduction of the Chertsey Oilers, enabling 2 senior games to be played each week. For those who don’t know the area, Ashburton has a population of around 30,000 and is situation 85km south-west of Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city. Chertsey is a town in the Ashburton district whilst Timaru is the second largest district of Canterbury, only behind Christchurch in population. The town centre is almost halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin.
The teams play for the Duncan McGregor Memorial Cup. “All going well next season we'll add another club to the ranks and have an under 12's competition up and running too. As with everything though it takes money and volunteers. Neither grow on trees for rugby league on the South Island” says Steve.
Funding, or a lack there of, is the biggest thing holding rugby league back in most countries the sport has a presence in. Aoraki Rugby League receive their funding from a mix of charitable donation and sponsorship. “For the most part we have been given a fair go by sponsors and charitable funders alike, and to be honest without both we would have been dead in the water from the get-go. There is a lot of competition around the charitable dollar in New Zealand, particularly in the South Island so maintaining a healthy relationship with charitable funders is essential for future growth”.
It’s those little moments in life that keep the fire burning and drive the desire to keep going. Seeing the community turn up and run food stalls and watching teams of kids run onto the field playing in the Aoraki Rugby League has provided Steve enough inspiration to keep driving his goal.
“They were wow moments for me because I had started the Outlaws out of nothing and had no expectation for these parents to work so hard to make the club happen, and the juniors were something I had hoped for but didn't think would happen for a number of years.
Aoraki Rugby League is now at a stage where it is strong enough to field a combined team in the South Island Premiership, the senior rugby league competition encompassing New Zealand’s South Island. The team plays under the banner of the “Aoraki Eels” and has more than held its own, having 6 players selected for the South Island Scorpions. The Scorpions often play touring teams from other countries, such as the Australian Universities team.
“I'd be too shy to admit it in person, but I am very proud of all the guys that play for the Aoraki Eels and even more so the South Island Scorpions.”
Another issue Aoraki Rugby League have in common with other developing rugby league areas around the world (such as Jamaica) is access to fields to play on. “we're not able to play long enough due to access to local grounds. This is something we're addressing by setting up our own ground but setting up a ground is not a simple process and nor is it cheap, so time will tell if we can get it done in time for 2019.”
Steve’s family has a long history in rugby league, with his Great Uncle Frank "Dally" Delgrosso representing the Kiwis back in 1921. “At one stage he was given a three-year ban by the Auckland Rugby League after he was charged with failing to remove one of his players who had been sent off but was refusing to leave the field. He was also suspected of throwing mud at the referee during a senior club match for Ponsonby, something he denied doing. Franks son, Frank Delgrosso junior was a junior Kiwi and played many years of senior club league in Auckland”.
When asked who his inspiration is, Steve replied “my uncle Tom Mckeown who recently passed away. He was a life member of the Ponsonby Rugby League Club, Auckland* Rugby League and New Zealand Rugby League. He also spent 10 years with the Warriors in a managerial position. He was also briefly a manager with the NZ soccer team at the Confederations Cup in about 2000. My father is obviously an inspiration for what I do also having played some representative level league in Auckland.”
Rugby League is game by people, for people. What better way to bring community together than around the love of a sport. The greatest asset rugby league has is its people. Steve Mckeown and Nathan Robinson are two prime examples of this. As a game, we need to do more to get people like Steve and Nathan everything they need to achieve their rugby league goals. Funding is an issue with almost all rugby league organisations around the world. We often hear about NRL players on million-dollar contracts which overshadows the funding issues occurring in most other places rugby league is played. Rugby League has the potential to thrive if its resources are focused in the right areas, in the hands of the right people.
*Contact Aoraki Rubgy League via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 02 2426 7741