A new TVNZ documentary offers a firsthand look into the lived experiences of rugby players of Pacific heritage, from their celebrations to the immense pressures they face.
What’s all this then?
Family Faith Footy: A Pasifika Rugby Story showcases the inspirational stories of Pasifika rugby players across the globe, from those playing for notable international sides such as the All Blacks and England to the players who ventured to Europe-based clubs for better financial opportunities.
The doco has special footage of Manu Sāmoa, ‘Ikale Tahi and the Flying Fijians’ training camps as they prepare for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which highlights the types of conditions the players endure compared to well-resourced nations.
The documentary’s release is timely following the changing of the eligibility rule a couple of years ago, which means players can now switch national teams after a three-year stand down period.
The transformational journey this doco takes us through gives Pasifika rugby players the spotlight they deserve for their contribution to the sport, given the challenges they have faced.
What I admire most about the film is how rugby superstars such as Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa share their compelling personal stories in a way that traditional media never could. The doco touches on the headlines that surfaced when Piutau announced he was leaving New Zealand to play rugby in Ireland for Ulster. At the time he was slamming for the move, yet as sports journalist Melodie Robinson says, “they [New Zealanders] assumed he was disloyal and they didn’t delve in deeply into the story of why he left, so I think his story will make them feel embarrassed of the reaction he got. It wasn’t fair.” Piutau, like many Pacific players, comes from a big family of 10 and they were the reason for his move, so that he could provide for them; a sacrifice many Pacific people will understand wholeheartedly. I am stoked Piutau was given a safe space to share his truth.
I also loved the special access we get into the training camps held in Fiji, Sāmoa and Tonga and the insight it offers into what these players go through in a World Cup in 2023. In Sāmoa, they have exercise bikes, rowing machines and bench press machines outside on the dusty dirt, where coach Seilala Mapusua gets creative with their training regime – getting the boys to carry nets of coconuts while they go for a run, for example. The Fijians are seen doing boxing drills on the Sigatoka sand dunes. It was incredible to watch them marching uphill, unfazed by the cardio, singing Fijian hymns. Make sure you have tissues nearby as you watch the Tongan rugby players receive their jerseys with a family member, especially after hearing Fekitoa’s backstory.
The story of the Manu Sāmoa squad of 1991 was a beautiful example of Pacific strength and humility. This was the first time Sāmoa was playing at the World Cup, yet the media were not interested in the team until they caused an upset against Wales. The doco gives us an insightful angle on what the Sāmoan players went through, which was never captured authentically by the media at the time.
There is a lot to love about this doco and understanding what makes Pacific rugby players tick. Seeing the contrast of former All Blacks Charlie Faumuina, who has stayed in many hotels when travelling for work, now immersed in the Sāmoan lifestyle, sleeping on a fine mat on the ground, seeing how loved and appreciated Bundee Aki is in Ireland and hearing the trials and tribulations that Sir Tuifa’asisina Bryan Williams went through being a Pacific person in the 1960s. If you are a rugby union fan, I strongly recommend watching this ahead of the World Cup kicking off. The smaller island nations are well-placed to upset some favourites this year, but they have had to work twice as hard just to get there.
Family, Faith, Footy is available now on TVNZ+.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.