Rugby league: Epic grand final shows TRL’s breakaway from ‘dead zonal structure’ thriving

Former Warrior’s coach turned radio broadcaster Tony Kemp, with former NZRL chair, Selwyn Bennett at the 2022 TRL Grand Final at the weekend. Photo/Myjanne Jensen

After its epic grand final event at the weekend, the intensity and passion for the Far North breakaway league “rebel competition” has proven it’s very much alive and well.

Since Taitokerau Rugby League’s inception in 2016, the Far North grassroots competition has continued to grow from strength to strength.

This is despite no funding or backing from New Zealand Rugby League or Rugby League Northland – the sport’s official bodies.

The battle to get to this point has not been an easy journey, with TRL founder and chief executive Hone Harawira the first to admit many doubted the TRL would see out its first year.

The decision to move away from the RLN to form TRL came after Harawira retired from Parliament.

He said he observed how many Far North clubs were feeling unseen and undervalued.

It was after a conversation with Moerewa Tigers’ former chairman Dave Bristow (now TRL chair) that the two decided to pull together eight Far North clubs and launch the new league.

Harawira said while he and Bristow initially drove the movement, it was essentially the clubs, players, whānau and communities that made TRL what it was today.

“A lot of the clubs were feeling browbeaten and unsure of what to do,” Harawira said.

“Things were really tough in those days, we had everyone telling us we were cowboys, that we didn’t have a decent competition and were an insult to the game.

“We even had threats of legal action from NZRL and were excluded from national competitions and funding.

“One thing we did have was one another, so when you put whanaungatanga [family connection] first, manaakitanga [kindness] second, then rangatiratanga [leadership] will always come through.”

RLN was created in 2010, as one of seven zones formed as part of the restructuring of the domestic game in New Zealand.

In the past two years, however, RLN has failed to hold a Northland competition in Whangārei, losing four of its clubs to TRL in recent years.

As a result, TRL now runs the only competition in Northland and has cut ties completely with RLN.

Harawira confirmed TRL would be meeting with the new Whangārei board to see how they could rebuild the game in Tai Tokerau.

Moving forward, Harawira said he’d love to see a return to the old days when league was divided into Whangārei, Mid-North (Ngāpuhi) and Far North (Muriwhenua).

He said he believed that could happen again under TRL, which had built a structure committed to treating the clubs like whānau.

TRL founder Hone Harawira at his home in Awanui.  Photo / Myjanne Jensen
TRL founder Hone Harawira at his home in Awanui. Photo / Myjanne Jensen

This effectively meant decision-making was in the hands of each individual club.

“We’re still talking to NZRL, but more importantly, we’re also working with districts from across Aotearoa to rebuild rugby league at a flax-roots level,” Harawira said.

“Effectively throwing out NZRL’s dead zonal structure and building a new structure based on kaupapa Māori that puts the mana back where it belongs.”

This type of thinking is not unique to TRL, which is one of many districts around the country to have broken away from the NZRL zoning system in recent years.

Former Warriors coach-turned-radio host Tony Kemp was at the match at the weekend and is leading the charge in calling on NZRL to scrap the zoning system.

According to Kemp, he is now working with various district groups to push for change and ensure they have a seat at the decision-making table.

“TRL is one of the best models in New Zealand and everyone knows that, but the national body won’t acknowledge it,” Kemp said.

“The true winner here today is TRL, ’cause if you look around, this is rugby league put together by the Far North with no support from the national body or their local body.

“Centralized departments need to see this and understand how wonderful this is.”

According to Kemp, $15 million went into the national body each year, with 6 per cent going into the zone.

None of which, allegedly, had been shared across to TRL or other breakaway districts.

Kemp said that simply wasn’t good enough and things needed to change.

“Rugby league is a conduit to health and educational outcomes. That’s what the Government wants, and is trying to do through the national body, but where are they?” he said.

“Eighty per cent of New Zealand rugby league players are Māori, yet they don’t want to meet with the collective to hui [meet] to get it right.

“They want to separate everyone, but we don’t want that any more, we want to celebrate our people.”

Former NZRL chairman Selwyn Bennett was also at the grand final event at the weekend.

He said he hoped talks between NZRL and TRL could lead to a positive outcome for all.

“The issue of the zoning could still be easily rectified and was mainly a problem due to Kaitāia teams having to travel two-and-a-half hours each way for a game in Whangārei,” Bennett said.

“If you looked geographically at the strength of the game, Whangārei, Kaitāia, and Moerewa all have strong performers.

“It would be smart to move the headquarters to Moerewa, which is central to both the north and south and not too far from Kaikohe, which also has a good stadium.”

Bennett added he too believed the TRL was a fantastic model.

“The rest of New Zealand should be copying what TRL does as it would be of benefit to them all,” he said.

“Nine out of 10 districts are struggling due to weakness in administration.

“I saw the set-up on Saturday and from what I’ve seen it works well, with good infrastructure and systems in place, it’s a credit to them.”

Kemp and Harawira recently joined retired Auckland Māori Rugby League chairman Greg Whaiapu in support of Whānau Ora chief executive John Tamihere, who filed High Court proceedings against New Zealand Māori Rugby League recently.

The group alleged unconstitutional actions, breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi and a failure to develop pathways for talented Māori and Pacific Island youth.

NZRL was approached for comment, but did not elaborate on any plans for league in the future.

NZRL chief executive Greg Peters said it had met with TRL to recognize and understand the Northland group’s position better.

“We are progressively meeting directly with elected district boards over the coming period. These meetings will inform our next steps.”


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