Inside the bitter feud dividing rugby league in Northland

TaiTokerau Rugby League is a breakaway competition aiming to bring power back to the people in the Far North. But under the lead of CEO Hone Harawira, it’s not without its critics. Don Rowe reports.

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Three hours north of Auckland, the town of Moerewa sits at the gateway to Te Tai Tokerau, a town steeped in history of industrial boom, decay and renewal. Simpson Park, home to the Moerewa Tigers, lays between the Opua Branch railway line, which once carried timber to the port in the Bay of Islands, and SH1 before it turns northwest towards Kaitaia. Behind one tryline is the Affco meatworks, which brought money, employment and mana. At the other end the clubrooms, standing room only, thronging with whānau on an August afternoon.

It’s the finals of the TaiTokerau Rugby League tournament, a breakaway rebel league aiming to rejuvenate the sport through a Māori framework in the north. Hone Harawira, the league’s CEO, stands at the gate taking $5 entry fees, greeting whānau. I’ve brought only EFTPOS. “Come in, find the money – you stand out, you’ll be easy to find.”

Chuck Taylors squelching across the sodden field, I certainly did. This is Ngāti Hine heartland, and more than 1,000 mana whenua are out in force. Kids in tights, hunting pants, short shorts, camouflage. A little baby in blue gumboots and an oversized league jumper meanders in the ingoal. 

Outside the clubrooms behind the tryline, the whānau are drinking Smirnoff Ice and swappa bottles of Lion Red. The smell and feel of a carnival is on the air. The finals today are between the Moerewa Tigers and the Tāheke-based United Valley Crushers, but on the sidelines people are still dissecting the Warriors game against the Raiders from the night before. They’re particularly unimpressed by the performance of Chanel Harris-Tavita.

Moerewa was once known as ‘Tuna Town’, when work in primary industry drew whānau in from the surrounding valleys. People came from Hokianga, Kaikohe and further north still, the local creek an important source of tuna and mahinga kai. But then Rogernomics struck. The wave of privatisation which decimated smalltown New Zealand swept through Te Tai Tokerau. The train which once chugged down the main street of Kawakawa township stopped, and around half the local workforce lost their jobs. It was a profound moment for Harawira, who worked at the Moerewa Affco.

“My politics is very much informed by the decision made by the Labour government to privatise our land and allow everything to get sold off, and not stopping anything, standing back, hands off, while things were privatised,” he says. “They devastated small communities. You feel that loss all of the time.”

Moerewa developed a strong gang presence, and at the close of the 70s the town played host to the most significant gang riot in New Zealand history. Forty years to the day before the TRL finals, 28 Stormtroopers were arrested after a drunken mob attacked heavily outnumbered police with axes and rods, setting a police van on fire, and eventually leaving a constable in a coma. It was shocking violence perpetrated by gang members mostly from out of town, but the spectre loomed over Moerewa for decades. 

The state turned away, looking only to Moerewa, and the Far North, as a policing issue at best. The most pressing political questions became how to get there, on what highway, where to avoid and which towns were safe enough to stop. In the Bay of Islands walls went up around stolen land, decadence next to destitution.

But the history of the Far North is inseparable from the history of the state. The north tells the story of Māori and the Crown, the signing of the Treaty, the violence that followed: the battlefields of Ruapekapeka, Ōhaeawai, Ōtuihi; Hōne Heke who cut the flag at Korāreka. Ngāti Hine Pukepuke Rau, Ngāti Hine of the Hundred Hills, who whakapapa to Kawiti, whose name sits at the top of the Treaty he never wanted to sign. The names of the mana whenua of Moerewa tell this history: Tawhiao Kawiti, Ringitaimani, Ngahowari. 

“It is part of their life, they can’t not be part of it,” says Harawira. “Ngāpuhi itself, it’s been through a lot of challenges, it still doesn’t have a Treaty settlement. Communities and hapū are seriously engaged in it. And they don’t even consciously know it. In Auckland, people talk about it, up here, people are living it. It’s part of their fibre. They know so much about their treaty, about their tūpuna, about who did sign and who didn’t sign, where they signed. All of that stuff is part and parcel of the lifestyle.” 

Hone Harawira waits to speak at the launch of his Mana Party at the Mahurehure Marae. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Hone Harawira descends from Ngapuhi rangatira Tāmati Wāka Nene, who won a victory over Hone Heke, and had the ear of Te Rauparaha. Harawira has spent his political life continuing the fight for the Far North, an uncompromising crusade that has earned him respect and enmity from Māori and Pākehā alike. In 2004 he led a hikoi from Te Rerenga Wairua to Parliament in protest of the Foreshore and Seabed act. Then, in 2005, he won the Te Tai Tokerau seat for the newly-established Māori Party. 

His time in the Māori Party was fractious, clashing frequently with “dickheads” in leadership over their relationship with National, which he perceived as compromising the party’s obligations to Māori. In 2011, after being suspended from the parliamentary caucus for “ill discipline”, Harawira left the Māori Party and announced the formation of his new Mana Party. 

“It’s small steps to tino rangatiratanga,” he says. “You can’t just talk about rangatiratanga unless you’re trying to practice it. This gives us a sense of what we can do for ourselves and for our kids.” 

The TRL was born of similar conflict in 2015, when Harawira and Moerewa Tigers administrator Dave Bristow hatched a plan to rebuild league in the Far North. Formerly teams like the Tigers played under Rugby League Northland, based in Whangārei, and had very little sway over executive decisions. It seemed all too familiar to Harawira.

“As things become centralised, power shifts further and further south. Rugby league has always been dominated by Whangārei. They’ve got good players, they’ve got good clubs, they run a good operation but Whangārei has never been particularly supportive of the things that we want to do in our area. 

“Moerewa has been playing for 50 years, and they have never, ever been allowed to host a final in Moerewa. They have played in the finals, they have won finals, but they’ve never been allowed to host it.”

By 2016, more than 20,000 spectators attended TRL season games across the region. In 2019, the teams played 16 rounds across Te Tai Tokerau, fleshing out a region-wide tournament which saw games as far north as Te Kao, Utakura, and Õhaeawai. 

But the growth of the TRL hasn’t been without hurdles, or critics. Last year there were allegations of player poaching, with Harawira accusing the Whangārei-based Northland Rugby League of reaching out to players from the TaiTokerau Rugby League competition. Rugby League Northland general manager Phil Marsh denies the allegation entirely.

“It’s bullshit, bro,” he says.“But that’s Hone’s MO, isn’t it? It gets him on the news and lifts the profile of his competition, but it was all bullshit and we all knew it.”

Marsh, who grew up in the Hokianga, says he supports the existence of the TRL and believes the league fills a valuable role. The kaupapa of the league is the right one, Marsh says, and players should be allowed to compete where they like. But the choice to play in the TRL comes at a cost.

“I think TRL is more whānau-based, more about whakapapa, more about the area where they’re from. Most of the teams are whānau-based teams from an area where they draw their players who are all related to each other. And that’s fantastic. I’ve got no problem with that.”

“However in a perfect world they would have their own competition, do their own thing, but they’d still be under a national body where we can help support with resource, where they could look for funding for development, where they could maybe start up a junior competition of some sort. I don’t think they’re too far away from that, there are just a couple of stoppers there.” 

Marsh says coming under the umbrella of Rugby League New Zealand would provide the infrastructure and funding necessary to develop the competition. It would also create opportunities for players to compete on a national level. 

“They have been given the opportunity to be a part of the set up, and to be a district on their own rights, where they can put a team into a national competition under TaiTokerau Rugby League, but they’ve decided they don’t want to be a part of New Zealand Rugby League. Why don’t they join? You’d have to ask Hone. I don’t know what that fulla’s kaupapa is, man. For me, it’s all about rugby league and our people. For Hone, it’s all about Hone.” 

Harawira says that’s ridiculous: “I’m the CEO, and it’s all about me, but I’m spending three hours on the bloody gate all day collecting entry fees? Hardly a place for personal profile. I’m trying to get five bucks from everybody – except you. Come on, mate.”

“We’ve invited their representatives to come to our games in 2015, and 2016, and 2017, and 2018, and this year, and they never come. They have said every year that no, they control rugby league. We’re open to partnership – but only real partnership. Only as equals. Every year I bring their offer to our board, which has representatives from every club – I can’t even vote – and the board says ‘Hone, stop bringing this to us, we want to get on with rugby league.’

“The days of Whangārei telling us what to do are long gone.”

That implacability creates certain challenges, however. As CEO, Harawira shakes the collection bucket for the TRL, and as the league receives no support or funding from the national body, the TRL has had to look elsewhere – sometimes to surprising success. This year, a charity fundraiser at Auckland publican Leo Molloy’s Viaduct bar Headquarters raised $75,000. “I couldn’t dream of that kind of money,” Harawira said later of the event.

The figure represents approximately half of the annual budget of Basketball NZ, making the 2019 TRL tournament one of the most well-funded sporting competitions in the country overnight. But the rebel league needs more than a one-time donation to fulfill Harawira’s vision.  

“We’re trying to stitch together something for our mana whānau, and therefore it’s about trying to use league as a vehicle to help our brothers, the guys who are playing, to help their partners, their children, their whānau, their extended whānau, their communities.”

“You can tell who still has a good job around here by the Holdens,” Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime tells me as the Tigers take the field.

Despite the economic hardship and all that brings with it, Prime says the mana of Moerewa has endured. “People are proud to come from here,” she says. She points at the row of homes behind the clubrooms. She grew up there, one of a neighbourhood of kids who walked the tracks, swam in the creek, lay awake listening to the sounds of the rugby club coming through the wall. She runs down a list of their futures. 

“There are two lawyers here, two more graduates from that house. There’s another lawyer, some teachers. They’ve seen the struggle of their parents and they don’t want it to happen again.”

Even so, some whānau in the area, the ones who never left, have often inherited homes from their parents. They’re mortgage free, a relic of a time where local industry paid well, but they no longer have the income to maintain them. And so Ngāti Hine rebuild, cladding homes, installing insulation, plumbing and painting before nature reclaims their whare.

“We’ve fixed around 100 homes now for people with low income, and no access to financing,” Prime says. “We call it the ‘Moerewa Model’. They’re brought on board too – one mum has sewn hundreds of curtains on her own.” 

Events like the TRL final bring the community together, says Prime, and serve a crucial role in keeping the peace. Just as with the tamariki on the sideline, “you run the players into the ground and they don’t have the energy to get into trouble.”

“These games connect us to one another. Transience is a big driver of problems in the community, and so it helps when people share that connection,” she says. 

Driving the transience and displacement is a housing market under intense pressure. There are 30 to 40 whānau applying for every available house, Prime estimates, and nobody can compete with out-of-towners with pre-approved finance. And so, if they don’t leave, whānau get creative: when Prime sold her house to a local family they immediately cut down the hedge between the next property and created a papakāinga

Onfield, Moerewa Tigers player and coach Peter Prime, Willow-Jean’s cousin-in-law, has scored the first try, splitting the fading Crushers defence and scoring on the far right corner. Prime is from a family of 13 from Motatau: “they’re all mountain goats,” Willow-Jean says.

The Tigers’ opening try is celebrated by a ute tray full of tamariki pulled right against the white line. They jostle and cheer like so many little spuds, jumping and clapping. “It’s hard to get our kids to leave because of days like this,” says Prime. “This is why people come home. It’s a reunion.” One of the Tigers comes close to the sideline and his friends start to heckle. 

“Show and go bro, give them the show and go. Chur bro, have a run. Shot ow Willsy.”

Didee Heta has three relatives on the field, she tells me during a break in play. Heta is carrying a bag of high heels for the girls heading to the annual Bay of Islands school ball. It’s a big night on the calendar, she says. I’m told it’s going to be pumping.

“My son-in-law is playing out there,” says Heta. “And I’ve got two nephews on the opposition – their dad is ex-Tigers.”

Henry Wiki, one of three brothers on the field, is leading the Tigers charge with a few huge hit-ups in midfield. The Tigers have capitalised on the early try and are trying to keep the Crushers on the backfoot. 

Just before halftime they put up a bomb which sends the Crushers scrambling. “Fuar, that one was heading for Affco,” came the call from the commentary booth. The games are being livestreamed on Facebook to whānau as far abroad as Australia and London, and the chat is filled with hundreds of commenters every bit as vocal as those on the sideline.

The Tigers spread the ball to the left, put a chip through the line forcing an error in-goal to score again. A hooking conversion puts the ball between the old, swaying posts, more of an A shape than an H. Things are looking good as the halftime whistle blows. But Peter Tipene, chairman of Ngāti Hine Forestry Trust, is all business. 

“People up here are disillusioned with the Pākehā, Whangāreis of the world,” he says. “There’s a perception that when people think of the North, they’re only thinking about Whangārei. We don’t want to send our good stuff away anymore. We want more control which is also why we want more economic development.”

 “Games like this lift spirits – everyone can see themselves reflected here,” he says. “People want to see that value retained in this community.”

The Tigers came into the second half up 16-0, but it wasn’t long before the Crushers showed the late-game rush they’d been known for all season, punting the ball to the Tigers who spilled it into the ingoal during an offload for a Crushers try. 

The Tigers struck back quickly, Wilson Hona snatching an offload out wide, bumping off a defender and slamming it down not a metre from his whānau huddled beneath umbrellas. Peter Prime went down from a tackle and looked to be in trouble but was quickly revived by a sip of water. Then the Tigers found another gap, gaining 40 metres, and a quick play to captain Anaru Thompson put the Tigers up 24-6.

As the Tigers scored again, and again, Crushers supporters started to get disgruntled. “Stand up, suck it up! Get up! Fuck!”

“Love this grassroots stuff,” Season-Mary Downs said. Downs, a practicing lawyer and Willow-Jean’s little sister, runs the Tukau Legacy project, a clothing and lifestyle brand based in Moerewa. In the North, their merch is everywhere.

The clothing is themed around He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene; the 1835 Declaration of Independence. Ngāti Hine and Ngāpuhi cite the Declaration of Independence as a founding document as they believe Ngāpuhi never ceded sovereignty to the Crown – a stance backed up by the Waitangi Tribunal. Proceeds from Tukau Legacy funds community events, hot meals, and onesies for babies at Bay of Islands hospital. They’ve done 37,000 items, and it feels like half of them are being worn at Simpson Park. 

More than 3,000 wāhine across Te Tai Tokerau have been converted to menstrual cups funded by Tukau Legacy, Downs says, alleviating some of the intense ‘period poverty’ in the region. The effects are particularly profound in schools, where some students were missing the equivalent of a term a year. 

“Everyone wants to give something to their community. We want to connect people, to establish that pride, and to raise up our community.

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“We’ve realised we can’t wait around – we have to do things ourselves.”

Out wide, the Crushers had struck back, rolling over the line for four, but it was too little, too late. Moerewa had won. As the final whistle blew, supporters flooded the field. There were hongi on the handshake line, and the boys had beers in hand before they left the park, putting them down only for a haka in front of the clubroom – the first of its kind performed by the Tigers at Simpson Park. Anaru Thompson strode from the field, a kāpene undefeated. 

“It’s been a long and hard season, a lot of weight on our shoulders, but we did the mahi behind the scenes and got the treats today.”

In Tuna Town, days like today are remembered for generations, the stories handed down like old Tigers jerseys. But the win is also a sign of what is to come, of what’s possible, of what the Far North is building whether the centres are watching or not. As dark fell and the rains came in, the vehicles spilled out of Simpson Park. Ngāti Hine were going back to Te Pukepuke Rau victorious.


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