Australia

Pasifika pride: Why Sunday’s NRL grand final will be a win for diversity

Sunday night’s NRL grand final marks a seismic moment for the most culturally diverse area in the entire country – Western Sydney.
In an enormous battle between two fierce rugby league rivals, the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels will be showcasing a “moment in time” for representation.

Nineteen of the 34 players that will take the field are of Pasifika or Maori heritage, many of them born and raised in Sydney’s western suburbs – and it’s being celebrated among the teams and the community.

With Pasifika and Maori players comprising almost 50 per cent of those in the league, the “Battle of the West” is being celebrated for more than just 80 minutes of action-packed sport.

The final features two teams from Sydney’s west for the first time since 1986 (when Parramatta beat Canterbury), creating a humdrum of excitement across ‘the area’ and the country.

Brian To’o is a popular figure among the NRL’s Penrith Panthers side, which will play in the western Sydney grand final battle on Sunday evening. Source: AAP / Dan Himbrechts

Pasifika names pronounced correctly a sign of ‘respect’

Penrith’s first-grade team has largely grown up together, with 14 of the players coming up from the junior leagues to play three consecutive grand finals together.
For Fijian Penrith hooker Apisai Koroisau, the strong Pasifika presence in these big games has allowed them to teach greater Australia about their cultural heritage.

That includes, for starters, how to pronounce their names. NRL commentators have in recent seasons been pronouncing players’ names correctly.

Two Penrith players put up a west side symbol with their hands on the field.

Brian To’o (left) and Jarome Luai of the Panthers celebrate following the NRL preliminary final. Source: AAP / Dan Himbrechts

“I’m not expecting anyone to say my name correctly or anything like that, but just to see the effort so many people have put in now, it’s quite a nice feeling,” he told SBS News.

“Especially for a young kid, just growing up out west, I didn’t think I was going to be much, and then to be on this stage is pretty incredible,” he said.

“To be able to have the acknowledgement and the understanding that people making the effort to try and say names properly, which might seem like a small thing, but it’s actually quite nice,” Koroisau said.

Two players shake hands in front of a trophy

Penrith’s Jarome Luai (left) who is of Samoan background, with Parramatta and New Zealand player Dylan Brown at the NRL fan fest earlier this week. Source: AAP / Dan Himbrechts

His fellow teammate To’o shared the same sentiment, saying it was “pretty mad” to hear people pronouncing his name correctly.

“It’s something that I’m really obviously grateful for,” To’o said. “It just shows that we’re able to be comfortable with our culture and the fact that everyone’s respecting it.”

‘Western Sydney, represent’

Jioji Ravulo, professor and chair of social work and policy studies at the University of Sydney, said the major representation of Pasifika players, coupled with the Western Sydney derby, is a recipe for success.
“By seeing our visibility in the spaces as representing these teams … that gives us a sense of connection, and this gives us a sense of purpose, but it also gives us a sense of achievement,” Professor Ravulo said.
“It’s a moment in time; people understanding more Pasifika perspectives, the way in which we see the world – we’re seeing more of that at the moment, and I think that’s really positive.”

Australia is home to more than 150,000 people who have claimed Pasifika and Maori ancestry, with at least 40,000 living in Sydney’s west, according to the latest data available from the 2016 Census.

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“People like myself from Western Sydney – represent! – we are proud to also celebrate where we’ve come from, and what that actually means to also represent diversity,” Professor Ravulo said.
To’o said it’s a pivotal moment for the Parramatta and Penrith clubs, who share a large multicultural demographic.
“I think it’s special, not just for us, Penrith boys, even Parramatta, everyone coming from the west and just representing everyone and … just showing kids that dreams do come true,” he said.

Both To’o and long-time western Sydney mate Jarome Luai have committed to representing the country of their heritage, Samoa, in the World Cup later this year, along with four other teammates and two from the Eels.

Two Parramatta Eels players smile while holding footballs

Parramatta Eels players Maika Sivo (left) and Waqa Blake (right) both hail from Fiji. Source: Getty / Cameron Spencer

Luai said he’s “buzzing” over the excitement that he can sense building ahead of the game, describing this year’s grand final as a “big win for western Sydney”.

“When I put this black jersey on, it’s more than a jersey for me. It’s playing where I grew up, playing for my hometown, playing for the people that was around me.”

“A lot of the NRL is made up of Polynesian players. Having that bit of insight about where we come from in Western Sydney and the Polynesian lifestyle is awesome to talk about.”

The stakes are high for both clubs. Penrith is entering its third consecutive grand final and has a chance at being the second team in league history to win back-to-back premierships.
For Parramatta, victory would mean an end to a title-winning drought that spans back to 1986.

Irrespective of who picks up the Provan-Summons Trophy on Sunday evening, Western Sydney wins this weekend.

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