A group of familiar faces from New Zelaand rugby are at the vanguard of MLR's next big expansion, with Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby

Professional rugby reaches Hawaii

Rugby has now got a new destination in the Pacific. Kanaloa Hawaii Rugby have been awarded a licence to complete in the USA’s Major League Rugby from February 2021.

While the MLR continues to expand – and there are strong rumours that a team in Florida is in the offing too – this move is seen by the leadership at Kanaloa Hawaii as one that can also offer greater opportunities for Pasifika and Maori talent.

Known as the Mercury Group, the club’s ownership includes former All Blacks Anthony Tuitavake, Ben Atiga, Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko and John Afoa. Tracy Atiga is the group’s CEO (and the MLR’s first female CEO) and Cam Kilgour is the rugby manager.

The team have also brought in Mick Byrne to be head coach. The Australian, who was skills coach as the All Blacks won two Rugby World Cups, will be assisted by former centre Tamati Ellison. The ex-Hurricanes, Highlanders and Rebels man has four All Blacks caps to his name.

Related: Why there needs to be a Pacific Islands Super Rugby team

And as well as achieving an MLR license, the new franchise are also interested in exploring options to be a neutral base for any Pacific Island side in the mooted trans-Tasman club competition. However, according to Kilgour, who also helped set up the LA Giltinis – the new franchise in Los Angeles, reaching MLR was the first goal, with growing Pacific and Hawaiian rugby the bigger picture.

“I want to do something that’s never been done before,” Kilgour tells Rugby World of the ambitious plans. “The MLR is not a retirement home, it’s not for the old guys who are asking for $300,000, it’s for the young guys who deserve a shot.

“We’ve just seen in the Last Dance (documentary series), the NBA wasn’t big until Michael Jordan showed up, So why not in rugby? Hawaii is full of Michael Jordans – the Pacific is full of Michael Jordans or Jonah Lomus, so why don’t we find that Michael Jordan and be the Chicago Bulls of rugby in the States and just take it to the next level?

“There’s most definitely untapped potential in Hawaii. If you get the right people on board. You need to have Mick Byrne, the best skills coach in the world. You have to have Tamati Ellison, one of the up-and-coming backs coaches in New Zealand. You have to have that calibre and knowledge to be able to upskill and tap that talent.

“It’s not just a matter of making a team and saying it’s going to happen, you’ve got to put in the resources and the effort. And that’s why some American teams have struggled. They think, ‘There’s a lot of Islanders in Utah, we’re going to carve up.’

“You’ve got to have the right people who are going to create culture, going to create the skill level. And that’s another thing for the Islands too.

“You’ve got to have the right environments and you’ve got to have the right coaching staff. It’s something that’s missing.”

Professional rugby reaches Hawaii

Involved: Former all Black tighthead John Afoa, now with Bristol (Getty Images)

The talent drain from the Pacific and the region’s Test teams struggling to secure access to their athletes who play on the other side of the world are two major talking points.

According to Kilgour, this group want their players to represent the Island nations, adding: “If they want to play for Tonga, Samoa and Fiji we are going to support them. A lot of European teams make it difficult for an Islander to play for their nation. We are willing to pay them for their time away. We are willing to pay them during a tour of the UK or pay them while there’s a three-Test series in New Zealand for Fiji.

“That’s the difference. We’re going to be the first-ever professional Pacific Island rugby team. We’re going to get behind our Pacific Island players and support them.”

At the heart of all of this, they say, is representing Hawaii. And the group will need to be canny about finding the right price point for tickets and merchandise. Securing favourable television rights, drawing investors, it’s not easy. Kilgour sees the recent success of the Tongan rugby league side as a positive signifier, adding that one of the best things about this region is that “Pacific Islanders support Pacific Islanders”.

The group will start slow and small. They will begin in a 10,000-seater stadium for a few years before planning to go into the University of Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium, home to the renowned Rainbow Warriors college football team and with a capacity of 50,000. And the promotion of Hawaiian players will be a touchstone.

Related: The opportunities and the obstacles for Pacific Islands rugby

So what of the next big steps, then? Kilgour, a Kiwi who has also worked with the Cook Islands national set-up, explains: “We’ve got the right people and the right knowledge. And we’ve reached out to a lot of Hawaiians – that was the first thing we did, to ensure we get the community on board, get interest from the players.

“We want Hawaiians to play for us. We want the current, contracted MLR Hawaiians to be playing for us. We want them to come home. There’s about seven or eight, but whether or not we get them is another thing – there’s all sorts of rules and regulations about who you can approach and talk to. But if MLR really want the game to grow, they will let the Hawaiians come back and play for Hawaii.

Professional rugby reaches Hawaii

Eventual home: The Aloha Stadium (Getty Images)

“But Hawaii has a very good club system. And their high school rugby is very successful. The playing numbers are good and there is a long history of playing rugby in Hawaii.

“We’re not competing against American Football. Rugby is a lot safer and there are a lot more opportunities for women in rugby. So we aren’t competing against anybody else. Our ticket prices are going to be cheap, affordable, because the team is for the people, it’s for the community.

Related: Is this the most beautiful rugby ground in the world?

“We want our home games sold out and we want all our home games in Hawaii. We want to make sure that our public get to see our players playing at home. And that’s why it’s important we get so many of those Hawaiian players playing for us. It just makes sense.

“One of the key players we’re looking at is Hawaiian. He would be a marquee player. He’s more important to us than a Dan Carter or a Jonny Wilkinson. Because those two aren’t going to sell out stadiums, they aren’t going to sell us memberships. This one Hawaiian player is going to do that. It’s important we get Hawaiians back playing in Hawaii.”

The side will have similar kit colourings as the famous Raiders in the NFL and plan to do their own pre-game challenge, like a haka or Sipi Tau. They want to be an intimidating team to play. But before all of that, they want to represent their region and its people.

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