Hemi Coates, the owner and director of Mount Maunganui’s Manaaki Adventures, is preparing to launch a rugby tour product into the US and Asian markets. He tells us about the unique opportunity of selling NZ rugby culture to the world.
One thing that I am sure of in life is that kiwis love their rugby. Kiwis have an underlying and deeply seeded passion for the game and I believe there is something special about the rugby culture we have here in New Zealand.
The big question is, how does a country with only 1.7%, or 150,000, of the world’s rugby player population, become and remain the most dominant nation in a global rugby sense? Is it all about coaching, or does the media or government have anything to do with it?
A few years back we approached a number of influencers in the New Zealand rugby market to see what they thought. They all came back and said, “the number one contributor to our success is our deeply rooted New Zealand rugby culture and passion for the game”.
As a business, Manaaki Rugby Tours decided to bring together a network of kiwi high-performance rugby coaches, trainers, schools, clubs, physiotherapists and facilities to create a rugby development tour package for visiting international teams to see if we could answer some of those questions.
Our core motivation became to help players, coaches and rugby teams from around the world grow and develop a deeper understanding and passion for the game of rugby, and try to help foster the creation of the growth of a rugby culture in their own communities back home.
One example of our theory in action is when we got an email from a kiwi who had started a youth rugby club in a small town called Arroyo Grande in California. It turns out there are a bunch of these types of small community clubs popping up all around the US. Rugby is not a sanctioned sport in American high schools but the popularity is skyrocketing thanks to rugby sevens now being an Olympic sport.
If we wanted to make a true impact on culture, we needed to show them what a strong culture looks like, feels like and tastes like. We needed to give this small club from the US the full NZ rugby experience. What did we do? We got them here during the Lions Tour of course!
We also organised exchanges with a couple of local high schools that are steeped in rugby tradition such as Hamilton Boys’ High School and Tauranga Boys’ College. We matched them with similar ability teams and made sure they got a real taste of the school haka, cold muddy fields, passionate supporters and the aftermatch function!
In the words of their head coach Rob: “There is a difference in the culture between the US and New Zealand. In New Zealand, it’s more like a religion – everyone is brought up with it. The young men that we generally get come into the game very late. We have to develop that sort of culture as we go”.
We not only wanted them to experience the culture of New Zealand rugby but also get a taste for kiwi culture. Warner and the team at Aotearoa Waka Experience challenged them to a bit of hard-work and team building, where he pushed the boys and coaches to paddle a traditional Māori waka from Tarawera landing all the way to Hot Water Beach before spending the night sleeping in tents under the stars on Lake Tarawera.
Coach Rob was brought up in Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty: “For me being up at Lake Tarawera brought back a lot of memories. I used to go up there as a boy”. It was a special moment where an expat kiwi rugby coach and his son could share a moment of togetherness with new members of his club in a place very special to him.
We also organised a team of experienced coaches with resumes that included NZ Secondary Schools coaches, World Sanix 1st XV championship winners and ex-representative players – all with their Level 3 IRB Coaching Qualification. Our intention is to not tell coaches and players how to get better at rugby, it is to expose them to new ideas and provide them with knowledge and skills to supplement and add value to what they are already doing. There is no one session that will help a team become superstars.
We didn’t stop there. We organised Logan Posthumus, who is one of the strength and conditioning coaches for the All Blacks, to run a few gym sessions and chat to the boys about appropriate training and nutrition.
We even managed to get them access to the All Black captains run before the final Lions decider in Eden Park. It’s fair to say a couple of selfies with big smiles were sent home after that one!
One thing we felt was important was to provide the ability for players and coaches to have effective communication with our staff before, during, and after the tour has ended. We chose to use an online video analysis platform called Hudl as it is the most user-friendly and seemed to tick our boxes. It also happens to be the most popular platform in the world and is used by the All Blacks. We filmed all of the games, training sessions and lectures and broke them down to digestible videos for them to access at any time.
The tour ended with an emotional goodbye and a lifelong relationship with the Arroyo Youth Rugby Club.
One bonus we discovered is that our tours operate in the NZ tourism shoulder season with most tours planning on coming during the northern hemisphere off-season summer break. Not only is this good timing from a logistical standpoint but it also helps us focus on Manaaki Adventures, which is our summer student adventure, education, culture and service business.
Our journey so far, although it has been fun, has been a lot of hard work. We look forward to hosting more teams in the future. Nothing we can provide these teams in a two week period will change a culture. But it can help rugby people from all around the world see, taste and feel what it is like to live in a country where a sport like rugby is woven into a nation’s fabric. And, who knows, they may take a slice of that culture back to share with their own families and communities back home.