Pictured: Mal Meninga playing for the Souths Magpies.

When Mal Meninga first heard about the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, it triggered a range of emotions.

In the eyes of many sports fans, Meninga is synonymous with State of Origin – and more distinctly the famous ‘Maroons family’ he now guides as a record-breaking Queensland coach.

But his passion and loyalty are traits which stretch beyond the Maroons, as QRL.com.au discovered in the wake of one of the worst ever storms to hit the Pacific.

“That’s my heritage, dad’s side,” Meninga says when asked about his connection to Vanuatu.

“I’m a very proud Australian South Sea Islander. Tanna Island is where my dad’s family come from, it was crushed and everything was knocked over.

“A lot of the villages have been flattened … it’s one of the worst hit areas, so obviously there’s a fair bit of sentiment there for me. That’s where my ancestors come from and I dare say I still have some family there.”

However, this isn’t the only reason why the former Test centre is calling on Australians and the rugby league community to dig deep and support the NRL VANUATU APPEAL in partnership with UNICEF Australia.

Meninga hopes the shocking events in Vanuatu will have a silver lining, by paving the way for a largely “untold story” in Queensland’s past to be discussed more openly.

“We’ve got a fairly chequered history in regards to the way South Sea Islanders came to Australia in the 19th century, (through the) sugar cane industry, mining industry and the railways,” he says.

The former Souths Magpies and Canberra star is referring to ‘indentured labour’, a controversial practice which saw many thousands of South Pacific Islanders brought to Australia.

However, in 1901 as part of the White Australia policy, the Pacific Island Labourers Act was enacted and many were deported, regardless of whether they were married to an Australian or feared death in their home country.

Meninga says while it was a terrible situation, there can be no denying the contribution South Sea Islanders made to numerous industries and the economy.

Likewise, their contribution to the game of rugby league over many decades is immense, hence the call out for league fans to unite behind the Vanuatu fundraising appeal.

“You look at every rugby league community throughout Queensland and New South Wales, and there will be some element of South Sea Islanders, a player or mum or dad, someone with South Sea blood in them involved in those communities,” Meninga says.

The 32-game Origin representative says rugby league is a popular game in Vanuatu.

“It’s a much followed sport, particularly in those islands. People like Larry Corowa, Gorden Tallis, Sam Backo and myself, (all) created a bit of a following,” he says. 

“Now with Justin O’Neill being the latest guy to play National Rugby League, it’s generated quite a lot of interest.

“Soccer is their major sport over there, but from a rugby league point of view, a lot of people play or have played rugby league in Australia, on the eastern borders – the Queensland coast and the Northern Rivers/Tweed area.”

With the Vanuatu national team improving all the time, Meninga says there is every chance they will in time be able to replicate the success of other Pacific nations.

“There’s been pushes around the Pacific Islands, playing Test matches,” he says.

“Samoa has been highly successful in recent times, Fiji made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup just recently.

“Papua New Guinea now with their Hunters program have made some really good inroads in Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup and Tonga (have been improving).” 

Meninga’s nephew Joe recently donned the Vanuatu colours alongside a host of players from the local Vanuatu Rugby League as well as Titans NRL stars Kevin Gordon and Matt Srama.

“His father’s very proud,” Meninga says of Joe, who plays his club rugby league for the Sunshine Coast Falcons.

“I would have loved the opportunity maybe to have represented my ancestral birthplace, but my nephew has. He did it proud.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The NRL, in partnership with UNICEF Australia, has called on the rugby league community to unite in support of the people affected by the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. The response has been overwhelming with more than $65,000 already donated by the rugby league community.

This is in addition to the $50,000 the NRL pledged to UNICEF's rapid response network, through which all members of the community can donate.

Queensland Rugby League and its massive network of clubs, participants, volunteers and fans will unite on the weekend of April 18-19 in a coordinated effort to raise additional funds for the NRL Vanuatu Appeal. (Click here for the official QRL Media Release)

264,000 people were in the disaster zone when the category 5 cyclone hit on March 13. Up to 90 percent of all buildings in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, were destroyed or damaged, including homes, schools and hospitals.

As many as 82,000 children are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance right now. Your donation will provide life-saving water, food, shelter and health care, as well as temporary learning spaces in place of the schools that have been destroyed. 

To lend a hand to the people of Vanuatu, visit www.unicef.org.au/nrl or call the toll free number, 1800 822 542 to offer your donation.