A chance to help young players better connect with their cultural identity inspired Cook Islands international Will Samuel to return from his maiden overseas campaign at the Pacific Championships with an empowered passion to represent his nation.
Supported by the QRL, the Queensland Pacific Island Cultural Carnival saw the likes of Samuel, PNG Kumuls forward Cruise Ten and a host of women’s NRLW and representative stars including Titans and Samoa young gun Sienna Lofipo, Cook Islands representative Annemarie Ratu and PNG Orchids Gloria Kaupa and Emily Veivers, all feature for their respective QPICC nation teams throughout the tournament.
For Samuel – whose parents are both heavily involved with the Cook Islands setup in Queensland – backing up to take part in the carnival in the same week as his long-awaited Test debut against Fiji was an important decision.
“Making my Test debut was one of my goals and it was on my vision board to try and check that off,” Samuel said.
“Karmichael [Hunt] gave me a tap on the shoulder and said ‘mate, you’re in the team this week’, so I rang my mum and dad and they were stoked. Dad said ‘I am going to fly up’ and he got to present me my Test debut jersey and having him there was awesome, just to experience it with me.
“With the involvement my family have with QPICC and the Cook Islands community, I felt I have built up a connection and became a role model to some of the kids.
“I have been playing in QPICC for the last 10 years. We were looking at all the little kids running around thinking that was us, and we want our Cook Islands kids to know they can make it through playing anywhere.”
Much like the upcoming NRL All Stars event, the community-focused carnivals are about more than just providing an opportunity to play the game.
“It’s all based on culture,” Samuel, who is reuniting next season with Hunt at Souths Logan Magpies in the Hostplus Cup, said.
“Myself, Kobe [Tararo] and Sato [Ketia Opo] are the younger leaders trying to be a voice within the Cook Islands community and took on a lot of roles really driving the culture.
“We would talk about how we want our trainings to be and how we want it to be conducted. We talked about how we can implement our culture with the kids so they can be proud of where they're from.
"We came up with three components. They were a song, so we taught them one for the opening ceremony, we taught them our national anthem and our pe’e, which is our haka.
Cook Islands Pe'e
“Hearing the little kids singing our songs at trainings – they were singing it louder than some of the seniors to be honest.
“It’s creating an identity for some of the kids that don't really get it at home and a safe space for them to come and be connected. Because there is a lot of disconnection between our actual culture where it has been lost, it’s telling them it’s okay to not know now, but be willing to learn it."
It was for this reason the the QRL threw their wholehearted commitment behind events such as QPICC, as well as the Murri Carnival and Asian Football Festival. In New South Wales, the Multicultural Rugby League association Heritage Rugby League event was held with 24 affiliated community clubs and 1400 registered players participating in a new cross-cultural competition, while the NSWRL Harmony 9s has been a long-running fixture on the calendar that celebrates the growing diversity and inclusiveness of the game.
“Rugby league is the vehicle to connect and get the people in the room, but the thing that breathes life into the event is the cultural aspect,” QRL CEO Ben Ikin said.
“As you celebrate the multiple cultures that exist in the game, you are openly celebrating the diversity that exists inside the game.
“This year was my first time at QPICC, I loved it. At the opening ceremony, I got sat in the front row as the seven nations marched in and I thought, ‘well, we're going to get up close and personal here with some Pasifika culture’ and we did.
“The singing, the hakas, the traditional dance – it came in so many forms, it was so authentic and done with so much passion.
“I had heard that a lot of young men and women who were part of those teams might not have a strong connection to culture and that this was the vehicle for them to better understand their past, so to watch those performances was quite emotional.
“For me, thinking that the QRL had played some very small role in allowing this to happen makes you feel good about the game.”
“What's the thing we love about sport the most? It's that it's a shared experience,” Ikin added.
“Any event like these that can bring people together for the right reasons and have a quality shared experience, they're more likely to want to continue to have that sort of experience.
That's the centrepiece of our community rugby league strategy – to help support and develop more healthy clubs.QRL CEO Ben Ikin
“If we have players, volunteers and patrons stepping into our club environment and they're having a healthy experience, which is predominantly fun and safe, they're going to want to come back.
"And there's every chance they bring someone with them, so the participation base grows and more people are volunteering because their experience with rugby league has been a healthy one.”