The first Pacific Island owned professional rugby team is now a reality after Major League Rugby (MLR) approved the initial application for a new club in Hawaii.
Based in Oahu, Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby's backers include former All Blacks Anthony Tuitavake, Ben Atiga, John Afoa, Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko.
ALERT: MLR has received an expansion bid from Kanaloa Hawai’i. — Major League Rugby (@usmlr) July 9, 2020
The initial application for membership has been accepted, and the League and the Hawai’i group have now entered an exclusive negotiating period.
The club co-founder and CEO Tracy Atiga said the ownership group, which also includes her husband Matt Atiga and former Cook Islands team manager Cam Kilgour, has been working towards this milestone for a long time.
"The dream of having a Pacific Island owned professional rugby club has actually been a 16-year dream but essentially the concept of actually going up to Hawaii and being a part of MLR that evolved really during Covid."
Kilgour was involved with setting up the new MLR franchise in Los Angeles and gave the others a heads up that another franchise licence was about to become available.
"He contacted us about four months ago to let us know that Colorado had pulled out of the MLR and there was an opportunity to potentially to apply for that 14th team spot," Atiga explained.
"So we're really grateful that our uso Cam contacted us because he knew we had a passion for this and together we've just worked really hard - myself, my husband Matt and Cam - and we've got the licence."
Previous attempts to establish a Pacific Island team in Super Rugby were thwarted by enormous funding demands and a lack of infrastructure.
Atiga, a former Auckland Basketball CEO, said the Kanaloa Hawaii franchise was a multi-million dollar commitment.
"But the good thing about it is that we've had such huge interest from investors all over the place," she said.
"That opportunity for us to pull those resources together and that investment together and actually get over the line has been quite an easy road and we are really excited already about the global response we've had from major sponsors, major conglomerates that are willing to get behind us as well."
"I think what's made this different is we've all come from 16 plus years of industry experience here in New Zealand - that's actually provided a really good foundation for what we're trying to achieve," explained Atiga.
"We have a team of three that are based in New Zealand and we're heading up to Hawaii to share our knowledge and to share our experiences with the MLR. US Rugby, they want to be just as good if not better than New Zealand Rugby and this is a great opportunity for us to share resources the way that we do with Polynesian people."
Making a Splash
Kanaloa Hawaii has the backing of the Hawaii Rugby Union and has already committed to contracting a minimum 25 percent Hawaiian heritage players across both male and female athletes.
Former All Blacks and Wallabies skills coach Mick Byrne has been appointed as the inaugural head coach, with former All Black Tamati Ellison on board as his assistant.
MLR teams are restricted in the number of foreign imports they can sign but Tracy Atiga was confident of fielding a strong lineup in 2021.
"Obviously we're looking across the wider Pacific region," she said.
"That doesn't exclude Europe, Middle East etc, but at this stage we're wanting to be the home base for players who want to get to that point of competition where they can play for their home nation - Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands etc - without the requirement of having to go through the traditional channels of playing professional rugby."
While the Major League Rugby season only runs for half the year Kanaloa Hawaii is aiming to attract players willing to work equally as hard off the field.
"Six months out of the year they'll be playing and if they are wanting to have a full-time commitment with us then we're going to provide opportunities for coaching and development and ambassador work and mentorship," Atiga explained.
"It's really crucial that our athletes get that opportunity to share their skills, their knowledge, their insights and obviously their culture with the wider communities."
Fiji and Samoa already operate semi professional teams in Australia's National Rugby Championship and Global Rapid Rugby but Atiga admitted they have yet to enage with the national unions in the Pacific Islands.
"The reason why we haven't is because we understand it's really important for us to actually secure the licence and to secure the schedule and to have everything in place before we even try to reach out to our Unions," she said.
"...Myself and my colleagues have actually all provided services voluntary over the years for many Pacific Island nations, so we have those personal commitments and connections with staff there.
"But essentially our formal approach to them will be later this week when we explain to them what we've been able to secure and that this is all-embracing, all-encompassing for the benefit of the Pacific Island nations and we're really excited to grow and build that relationship with them moving forward."
Major League Rugby and Kanaloa Hawaii have now entered into an exclusive negotiating period to finalise terms and meet the league's expansion benchmarks before their membership is ratified by a board vote.
The 2021 season is scheduled to kick-off in February.
Tracy Atiga said they were also in discussions with New Zealand Rugby about the possibility of joining a new-look Super Rugby competition in 2021, but she emphasised that it would be a separate team to Kanaloa Hawaii and would be based out of South Auckland.