Australia Stawell's first rugby club fosters sense of camaraderie and a home away from home among Pacific migrants
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The Rugby League World Cup has been the backdrop for continuing negotiations between the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) and NRL executives over a new collective Bargaining agreement. Many of the game’s top athletes have criticised the NRL for attempting to lowball the players financially, despite huge revenue being generated across the code. As a rugby union fan, the chasm that exists in relation to the representation of rugby union players in Australia as opposed to their league counterparts, as well as the incomparable financial situations both codes find themselves in, has become apparent.
From the balmy Samoan village of Asau to country Victoria, Storrs Ualesi has always carried rugby in his soul.
"My dad is a rugby player, so it's always in my blood," he said.
As the only son in his family, Mr Ualesi was unable to play rugby union when he was young because he was needed around the home.
Although he eventually represented his country in an Under 17 Rugby Sevens match against Fiji, it took moving him to western Victoria for work to play the sport more consistently.
Stawell is near the small town of Moyston, where the seeds were sown for the creation of Australian Rules football.
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Despite Peter V’Landys and Andrew Abdo making the decision not to attend the Rugby League World Cup final to focus on finalising the collective bargaining agreement, there is still no agreed CBA. Reports suggest that the ARLC and the Rugby League Players Association are getting close and that a new CBA is imminent. But the CBA isn’t the only negotiation taking place right now. At the end of next season every club’s licence expires, and currently the club licensing agreements are also being negotiated.
Mr Ualesi said the region was still all about AFL.
"No disrespect, but it's not my type," he said.
"In Fiji, everyone would die for rugby; it runs in the blood, it runs in the family, it runs in the community," teammate Iosefo Katirewa said.
Mr Katirewa has played rugby union since he was a child.
"When there's a rugby match, villages, town they sit down and just focus on rugby," he said.
Stawell Mounties captain Taylor Langwell came from New Zealand and was raised in a strictly rugby union-only family.
But he became the "black sheep" when he defected to play rugby league at state level until he shattered his jaw.
Rugby league in Aussie Rules heartland
When he moved to Australia, Mr Langwell found it hard not having mates he could watch the rugby with.
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He said the idea to start a rugby league team in Stawell was conceived during a car ride to watch NRL team Melbourne Storm play.
Mr Langwell said it was initially hard gaining traction with less than 10 players showing up.
"But once we started training properly and got jerseys, the word got out," he said.
"All of these boys came out of the woodwork to the point where we actually needed to close our registrations 'cause we had too many players."
Mr Ualesi discovered the Mounties after a chance meeting with a player who had just finished training.
A week later, he was a Mountie donning their characteristic red and sky-blue kit.
They now make regular trips to Naracoorte, Warrnambool and Mt Gambier, three hours away to play in the Limestone Coast League.
Migration driving the game
Like many of his teammates, Mr Ualesi and Mr Katirewa work for an Ararat manufacturer of electrical wiring for trucks, trains, and planes.
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Under the government's Pacific Australia Labour Migration (PALM) scheme, they are just some of the 26,500 temporary workers from the Pacific Islands recruited nationwide to fill chronic labour shortages on farms, orchards, abattoirs and factories.
A spokesperson from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations said the program encouraged migrants and their employers to help them build connections through sport andwith their host community.
"We have seen an increase in participation from PALM workers in sporting clubs which provides a connection to the community and assists with the overall welfare of workers," they said.
For the past 14 consecutive years, NRL Victoria has also seen statewide growth of rugby league's popularity.
NRL Victoria general manager Brent Silva said that since 2015 the sport grew by 50 per cent from 400 to 600 registered players in the regions.
Clubs operated in Sunraysia, Goulburn Murray and western Victoria where players from Pacific Island are over-represented.
"We're talking high 80s, low 90 per cent of our registered club participants are of Pasifika or Maori heritage," Mr Silva said.
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"Being able to provide rugby league in those regional areas gives them a sport they're more connected to, given that's what they're exposed to from a heritage perspective."
Home away from home
"All of those boys have come from islands where they've left their families behind," Mr Langwell said .
"We wanted to put something together for them to give them that camaraderie, that brothership, with that sense of family, being so far away.
"It's also a bit daunting for some of them coming into this culture being so different to the islands so this gives them a bit of common ground to socialise with each other," he said.
Mr Katirewa says the bonds among the multicultural team are strong.
Mr Ualesi said his Fijian and New Zealand teammates all had different playing styles and learnt from each other to grow as a team.
"We all want to support the team and put the Mounties up… [it's] not only for us but for the kids as a role model for them," Mr Ualesi who also spent time as a missionary in New Zealand, said.
"They've been huge for us," Mr Langwell, said.
"They've all got experience all in rugby union, but we've slowly changed that into league."
In this, the Mounties have been sitting at the top of the ladder and a premiership match is likely.
"Watch out — Mounties on the way," Mr Ualesi proclaimed right before he thanked his "missus" for driving him to each training.
"We cannot wait to play more games and do what we love," he said.
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