14 Dec 2015

Breakaway league competition gains support

6:15 pm on 14 December 2015

A breakaway Far North rugby league competition is gathering support as teams balk at travelling for hours to matches to have 80 minutes on the field.

The new competition, headed by Hone Harawira, will be called Te Taitokerau League. It already has nine Northland clubs signed up for a new season.

Hone Harawira.

Hone Harawira will head the new league. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Five of those have broken away from the existing Rugby League Northland competition, which is affiliated to New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL).

Hikurangi Stags president John Tahana said pulling away from the Whangarei-based zone, and localising the Far North teams, would heavily reduce travel costs and help grow league at the grassroots.

"It will halve the travelling expenses in costs so we could put that back into the clubs. Most clubs up here are running on empty, if you look in their banks they have 50 to 100 bucks, that's just the way it is."

But the move means Rugby League Northland will have its zone reduced by more than half.

It will lose four teams from its premier grade, leaving just seven teams, and it will lose one team from its second-tier grade, also leaving seven teams.

Rugby League Northland CEO Walter Wells told RNZ anyone playing outside the official competition would face harsh consequences.

Players in the new competition would miss out on selection for the Northern Swords and representation at any level for New Zealand, Mr Wells said.

The travelling issue applied to all clubs that travelled, he added. "I'm disappointed that it's come to this situation, because it's quite unfortunate."

The NZRL said yesterday it was Rugby League Northland's responsibility to deal with the issue in the first instance but, if it could not, the NZRL would step in.

It's understood if the new competition cannot affiliate with NZRL, it may be adopted by the New Zealand Māori Rugby League body.

Mr Tahana said the league community was excited about talk of a new competition.

"For too long teams have travelled long distances with the bare minimum and that takes its toll on the clubs," he said.

"Imagine Mt Wellington travelling to Whangarei once every four or five weeks to play league. I don't think so."

Mr Harawira said players from clubs around Whangarei spent about 20 minutes traveling to games in the existing competition, while teams from the Far North spent five hours on the road.

He told Morning Report areas like the Far North needed to be able to have a lively and vibrant competition, because the game had a way of connecting with people living on the margins in poor communities.

The new competition has an unlikely supporter - former league star Tawera Nikau who also sits on the NZRL board.

Mr Nikau, who was speaking independently of his role on board, said he would like to see the competition work.

"I think it's absolutely fantastic. I think one of the key components of New Zealand Rugby League is to grow the game at the grass roots level.

"I know there are some issues that they need to work through with Rugby League Northland, but on the whole I support any growth as a rugby league person," Mr Nikau said.