Tevita Pangai of the Broncos is tackled by James Graham of the Dragons during the round one NRL match, Sydney, Australia. Image: Matt King/Getty

For Tagataese’s sake NRL, stop butchering Polynesian names

What’s in a name? Once again not much, if you’re an NRL commentator.

The 2018 edition of the NRL kicked off last night, with a new look St George-Illawarra Dragons drawing a packed house for their clash with the Brisbane Broncos. Things have changed down in the land of the famed Red V, with a new squad including half Ben Hunt crushing the visitors 34-12.

In fact, plenty has changed all over the NRL, as it always does. Players and coaches have swapped teams, new contracts have been drawn up, and there’s even a new emphasis by the refs to police the play the ball more thoroughly (who knows why).

But in one department, as the saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It only took one set from the Broncos for Tevita Pangai Jr to stamp his mark on the game, and exactly the same amount of time for Fox Sports main commentator Warren Smith to mangle the pronunciation of his name. All of a sudden, he became ‘Terveeta Pang-guy’, an interpretation that was parroted by the colour and sideline commentators.

Fellow Bronco Kodi Nikorima, who featured a lot given that he’s a halfback, once again had his name pronounced in the Australian vernacular of ‘Knicker-reema’. But of course, we’re used to this from Australian broadcasters because Nikorima’s name has invariably sounded like that throughout his 56 game NRL career. Along with Sam Tagger-taysee, Brad Tack-a-rangie, Dene Haller-towe etc.

Of course, none of this is new. In fact, even bringing it up as an issue isn’t new either. At best, it’s clumsy and stupid for people literally employed to call out people’s names to be this bad at it. At worst, it’s a very thinly veiled insight into just how little some people care about the basic rights of minorities.

Not that Polynesians are much of a minority in the NRL. Right now over 40% of players claim Pacific Island or Māori heritage. And that’s only going to get bigger. So there’s a massive share of your audience that you’re pissing off, for a start. Plus, you’re not being asked to speak in some obscure tongue – if you play, work or are associated with rugby league, you’re surrounded by Polynesian people and influence. You can walk up to someone and ask them how to say their name, if you’re unsure.

Therein lies the biggest insult right now, or at least a missed opportunity. The NRL, to its credit, have embraced indigenous Australian culture by having an Aboriginal representative game three out of every four years. The Pacific Test between Toa Samoa and Tonga regularly draws huge interest. Tonga’s run in the recent World Cup shoved league back into some much needed public consciousness on this side of the Tasman, after the Warriors and Kiwis did the best they could to erode any of that by respectively stinking up the joint last year.

Just what the NRL wouldn’t give to get the same sort of crowds and atmosphere that Tonga created during the World Cup would make for an interesting case. They’re only going to get more names that may sound too tricky for the likes of Warren Smith to pronounce coming through, if that Tongan success is actually capitalised on – and there’ll only be more tweets and posts about what a poor job they’re doing. Plus they seemed to have learned little from the outcry over an inept attempt at humour at the expense of ‘hard to say names’, a stunt that badly backfired on The Matty Johns Show last year.

There are exceptions to the rule, however. Sky Sport NZ commentator Glen Larmer’s calls of the Warriors’ home games and Tonga’s games in the World Cup get the names right, and former commentator Dale Husband was committed to providing his own expertise when it came to te reo Māori and Pasifika pronunciation.

The Australian-run NRL isn’t exactly renowned for setting the tone for moral standards, in a country which is hardly a bastion of cultural tolerance anyway. In a landscape that’s included pack rape allegations, drug scandals, rep players sympathising with convicted killers and the recent return of guys that have pissed in their own mouths and committed simulated bestiality – getting Pacific Island and Māori names right might not be the highest priority on the rugby league’s reputation list.

But it should be, because it’s the easiest bloody thing to fix. I mean, they don’t seem to have any problem pronouncing Tom Trbvojevic’s name.


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