Nov 26, 2020 Last Updated 3:47 AM, Nov 26, 2020

A new rugby franchise to the US national competition may provide a life-line for some Pacific islands rugby players.

The  website of Hawaii-based Kanaloa Rugby bears the quote, “From the depths of breadths of the sea; strength and courage shall rise”. It’s a fitting sentiment as the world, and world sport, is ravaged by COVID-19.

“Kanaloa is a culmination of 16 years of community rugby services offered to the wider Maori and Pasifika community,” says CEO, Tracy Atiga. “ The founding roopu behind Kanaloa Hawaii believes in the potential for the community to thrive through the values and efforts of giving back.   In January 2021, The Colorado Raptors unfortunately withdrew from the MLR competition, [Major League Rugby- th U.S. league] leaving an opportunity for a willing franchise to bid for an entry into the league.  This is when Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby took flight”.   

Players of Pacific Island heritage play in competition, and represent nations all over the world. So we asked the CEO if this could be another stepping stone for our rugby players to rise, showcase their talents and secure good contracts?

“The beauty of having a club that is driven by Maori and Pasifika values and village ethos is our commitment to encouraging and supporting our athletes to play for their home nation,” Atiga responded.  “Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby offers a unique stance that all players that are selected for national honours are to be encouraged to participate and financially supported throughout the said national campaign.  We are challenging other clubs to follow suit. We believe that if a club does not release a player for national representation then they have limited trust and faith in the depth of their players and their coaching staff.  Here at Kanaloa, we back our coaching roopu and our emerging players to step up when the opportunity presents itself.  In other words, if we lose 23 starting line-up players to the RWC or the Olympic Games then we will celebrate and support those players and we will still progress to a championship through faith and encouragement of our emerging players”.

To help establish the club’s  foundations and cultivate it to blossom, Kanaloa has acquired the services of a few big names and rugby legends in its management ranks. Former All Blacks stars such as Joe Rokocoko, Anthony Tuitavake, Ben Atiga and two-time Webb Ellis Cup winner Jerome Kaino have taken interests in developing Kanaloa into a club best suited for our Pacific rugby talents.

“Our former All Blacks have devoted the past 16 years of their lives to giving back to the game.  The chance to now give back as club owners provides direct advocacy and decision making opportunities to make things right.  Operationally, our former All Blacks are rallying together to attract other like-minded sports professionals, celebrities and members of the global rugby community to embrace this new way of doing business and changing the world one day at a time,” Atiga says.

The main feature of the club is the use of traditional and communal practices of working together as a community—as a group of Pacific Islands people—to carry each other forward and achieve more in life through rugby.

“One of our policies that support our village ethos and portray the way we are living our values is the fact that our entire team of staff are being paid the same base hourly wage.  From the CEO to our players to our rugby development officers”.

We know that rugby continues to grow around the world as a global sport. And for the Pacific Islands, rugby over the many years has evolved from just being a past time game that everyone loves to play and having the pride of representing our nations in the world stages – to now totally becoming a guaranteed career path to earn a living. Nowadays, rugby is essentially a job, and for a player to do it professionally and play in lucrative overseas franchises – that is the ultimate goal. Kanaloa just might be that much needed life-line for local talents to thrive in overseas rugby competitions and in this case it’s in the United States of America.

*[Roopu: is a Maori word that means group, party of people, company or committee]

The Rim of the Pacific military exercise will proceed  from August 17-31 as an at-sea only event in light of COVID-19 concerns.

The Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet will host the biennial maritime exercise.  The theme of RIMPAC 2020 is “Capable, Adaptive, Partners.”

“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that our maritime forces work together to protect vital shipping lanes and ensure freedom of navigation through international waters,” said Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. John Aquilino. “And we will operate safely, using prudent mitigation measures.” There will be no social events ashore, and a minimal footprint of staff ashore for command and control, logistics, and other support functions.

Around the world, governments have placed restrictions on port calls by cruise ships, concerned about the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus amongst passengers. A crisis in the US territory of Guam involving the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has highlighted the same concern for military vessels.

Deployed in the Western Pacific, the US warship has become the centre of a political storm with the spread of Covid-19 amongst its 5,000-strong crew. After visiting Vietnam in March, the aircraft carrier travelled to Guam, the US territory of 170,000 people in the western Pacific. Authorities now believe a number of the carrier’s sailors were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus during shore leave in Vietnam.

Earlier this week, there were 940 active cases of COVID-19 amongst sailors from the ship .  Anchored off Guam, the warship’s commanding officer Captain Brett Crozier sought permission to relocate up to 3,000 personnel onshore, to limit the rate of infection in the cramped quarters below decks. Crozier’s memo to US military authorities was leaked to the media, and he was relieved of command.

As the US Navy moved sailors from the stricken aircraft carrier into empty hotels on Guam, many indigenous Chamoru expressed concern. On 1 April, the Chamoru women’s organisation I Hagan Famalao’an Guåhan wrote to Guam Governor Lou Leon Guerrero opposed to the housing of US sailors in tourist hotels. The letter called for sailors to be accommodated in the US military bases that take up a third of the islands land area, such as Apra Harbour Naval Base and Andersen Air Force Base.

Guam only has two civilian hospitals and the territory’s health service is already stretched as local Covid-19 infection rates increase, with more than 130 confirmed diagnoses (including four deaths) at time of writing. The Guam government turned away the cruise ship MV Westerman in February, fearful of spreading Covid-19 from infected passengers. But as a US territory, Guam has no authority to block an American warship from its harbours.

More than 25,000 military personnel from 20 countries - including Australia, New Zealand, France and Britain - are scheduled to join the RIMPAC exercises. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has previously participated in RIMPAC, but has been excluded this year because of rising US-China tensions.

In Hawaii, the local tourism and sex industries welcome big-spending sailors on shore leave, but indigenous Kanaka Maoli have long opposed the use of their islands for US military wargames and weapons testing. This concern is all the greater during the latest pandemic. The first case of Covid-19 in Hawai’i was reported on 6 March: a month later, Hawaii’s state governor announced there were 371 confirmed infections, with numbers still rising.

At the last RIMPAC exercise in 2018, crews from visiting warships were allowed onshore for rest and recreation, putting them in daily contact with civilians.  Church, community and peace groups have been petitioning US politicians for cancellation of the exercises. 

The Australian and New Zealand governments have not yet announced whether RAN and RNZN warships will join RIMPAC 2020. An Australian Department of Defence spokesperson told Islands Business: “In line with the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Australian Government, Defence is currently reconsidering the status of its upcoming events to ensure the safety of personnel involved.”

After widespread popular protest in Okinawa and Guam against the basing of US Marines and their families, Australia agreed to host some marines through an annual rotation in the Northern Territory. Both Canberra and Washington claim that the Marines are not formally based in Australia, but the regular rotation ensures that US boots are on the ground for most of the year. Despite this, the latest rotation of 2,500 Marines through Darwin has now been cancelled by Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, following the decision of the Northern Territory to tighten border controls and prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

The government hopes to be back in business next year, with Reynolds stressing: “Any decision in relation to the 2020 Marine Rotational Force - Darwin (MRF-D) in no way affects Australia's commitment to host next year’s, or subsequent, MRF-D rotations.”

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