Saveatama Eroni Clarke - Ava Usu Ceremony - First Pasifika Engagement Officer for NZRU
Yesterday afternoon an 'Ava Usu' ceremony (welcoming ava ceremony) was held at the Fale Pasifika, Auckland University to officially celebrate the appointment of Saveatama Eroni Clarke as NZRU's very first Pasifika Engagement Officer. The ceremony was also held to celebrate the significant contribution of Pasifika people and culture to the rugby community in New Zealand.
Although, Saveatama has been in the role for over a year now, the official appointment and ceremony had been delayed due to Covid.
Prior to the ceremony starting a mihi whakatau (welcome), karakia and waiata was given from the NZRU side and accepted by Ika Tameafuna on behalf of Saveatama Eroni Clarke.
The Ava Usu ceremonial proceedings then started with the distribution of ava sticks and mats, tulafale speeches and the ceremonial drinking of ava and words of blessing & encouragement given to Saveatama Eroni Clarke on his new title.
When Saveatama Eroni's father Lavea Jeff Clarke spoke to give his blessing, he talked on the number of Pasifika players who had contributed to New Zealand rugby and that there had been three players of Pacific Islands heritage who had over 100 All Blacks test caps to their name (Keven Mealamu, Mills Muliaina and Ma'a Nonu). He emphasised that the appointment of his son was a much needed and welcomed role.
Tuifa'asisina Sir Bryan Williams acknowledged NZRU and thanked them for making the appointment of Saveatama to the position as he took the ava.
"Fa'afetai tele lava to New Zealand Rugby Union for this appointment and just the acknowledgement of Pasifika rugby and Pasifika players in New Zealand is very much appreciated. Manuia!"
After the ava ceremony formalities had concluded NZRU CEO Mark Robinson then spoke on many of the special things that Pasifika rugby in New Zealand has come to represent and how Eroni's appointment plus the newly created role was important for the NZRU going forward.
"The Pasifika Engagement Officer role is extremely important for us. We recognise that the player pathway in our country for Pacific Islands players has been amazing but what we want to do is create more genuine pathways for a broader range of people to experience the opportunities in governance, administrators, referees and even coaches as well.
When we talk about inspiring and unifying through rugby and some of our objectives around keeping rugby at the heart of our communities and winning with mana, we know that there is a lot of work to do to live up to that vision." he said
Robinson also acknowledged the huge mana that Saveatama Eroni Clarke has in the Pacific community and that he was confident he would bring the same passion he displayed on the rugby field to this new role at NZRU.
La'auli Sir Michael Jones then shared how Tuifa'asisina Sir Bryan Williams had come to see him after the Ava Usu ceremony had concluded and said to him "Michael I never thought I'd see the day" which struck him as he realised the significance of the day.
He acknowledged New Zealand rugby for making space for this moment in time where Pasifika could celebrate as a community - and something that Sir Bryan had said he'd never thought he'd see the day of - the role that Saveatama is taking on.
"This is a first that's never been done before and a historic, stand alone role that recognises the important role of Pasifika, not just the legacy but the future. It's so befitting of what's happening around us (with the Samoa & Tonga game, Fiji playing the All Blacks and the Cook Islands team in town)"
"I love the fact that out of the five All Blacks who have played over 100 tests, three of those players are Pasifika. Leadership is something that comes naturally to us and we've had some great All Blacks captains too like Tana. We recognise that if we don't step up we're never going to attempt to break the ceilings" he added.
He recognised Tuifa'asisina Bryan Williams as his hero and shared that in the 70s it was him who broke the ceiling for Michael and Eroni's generation of All Blacks players.
"We believed that we could do anything and aspire to anything because Sir BeeGee had broken a glass ceiling for us."
La'auli shared that from the 1930s on, there had been Pasifika All Blacks here and there up until the 70s and now today over half of the 21 man squad are of Pasifika heritage.
Combined with Pasifika women in rugby, the representation and contribution to New Zealand rugby is significant.
"Today we celebrate breaking another key moment in time - a Pasifika specific role that is designed to ensure that through the role that Eroni plays that we've got someone connected to the community. Someone who's going to pick up the baton and run for us.
We couldn't have asked for a better person, a better Pasifika man. This role will help unify and inspire Pasifika people ... because we want to see more of our people at the highest level - governance, coaching, management and key roles in the game. Leadership is influence and if we want to change the climate and change the atmosphere and see a better day for our people - we need to be part of the climate changing." - he added.
Saveatama Eroni Clarke closed off the event and also spoke on the influence Sir BeeGee had, had on his childhood aspirations to become an All Black.
He then shared that when he was named in the All Blacks one of the things his late Mother had said to him was "Son, every brown face and every Pacific Islander will flick up their collar and say 'that's a brother'" and he realised in that moment the power of influence and the responsibility that he had not just playing for the All Blacks but the responsibility that they had in that generation.
"We have that saying that 'When one of us are lifted, we are all lifted' just as when Sir Bryan Williams playing all those years - as he was lifted, his community was lifted. I began to understand more and more the responsibility that was on us to take up that banner as the new leaders that were coming through.
So I don't take this reponsibility lightly at all ... and I realise now that it is our turn to take up the baton and as leaders to make a way for us as well" - Saveatama Eroni Clarke