A new NRL player forum has been established in response to the growing influence of Māori and Pasifika athletes, who the NRL says make up over 45 percent of players in the elite men’s competition and over 48 per cent of women competing in the NRLW.

The Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) launched Māori and Pasifika player advisory body, the Mana Group, this week to ensure the cohort is adequately represented, and has already hired former players from Māori and Pasifika backgrounds to work in player operations.

The advisory group will promote Māori and Pasifika players into leadership roles and create an environment where players and stakeholders – especially those from non-Pasifika backgrounds – will have the opportunity to discuss matters involving the increasingly diverse NRL and NRLW playing group.

The move follows the Manly pride jersey boycott in 2022, which highlighted the need for greater cultural awareness of Pacific Islands athletes in the sport. The Sea Eagles’ then-coach Des Hasler said mistakes were made by management, with “little consultation or collaboration” within the club’s Māori and Pasifika players on the proposed rainbow jersey, seven of whom refused to take part in the match for religious and cultural reasons.

The launch of the Mana Group is a shift in approach around consultation with Māori and Pasifika players. A previous advisory panel was jointly managed by the NRL and RLPA, but the new group is being managed solely by the players.

Cowboys NRLW and PNG Orchids player, Shellie Long, said she was proud to be part of the Mana Group, and its establishment reflected the growth in the number of professional players from Māori and Pasifika communities and the need to better understand them.

“Building those relationships and building that trust with those players is essential to keeping the game alive,” she said.

“We know Māori and Pasifika people can be quite shy, quite scared to have certain conversations. But this group will allow us to promote Māori and Pasifika players but also help them eventually go into those leadership roles off the field.”

RLPA chief executive, Clint Newton, said the Mana Group has the support of the NRL.

“We have a good history of Pasifika and Māori players in our leadership group, including Sia Soliola on our board, but we acknowledge we are forever on a journey of growth and understanding,” he said.

The group also includes current and former NRL and NRLW players Zahara Temara, Simaima Taufa, Junior Paulo, James Fisher-Harris, Siliva Havili, Feleti Mateo and David Mead.

Newton said the new group “will enhance our service to that demographic and their specific cultural needs, and also enable them to fill more leadership roles on and off the field.”

Former NRL and Cook Islands player, Tinirau Arona, was appointed to the role of RLPA player operations manager last year, with former Pasifika and Māori players Nita Maynard, Joe Galuvao and Soliola also brought into the fold.

Arona said it was important for people from Maori and Pasifika communities to see there are non-playing opportunities in rugby league, and cited the efforts of Galuvao, Mateo, fellow NRL employee David Solomona and Frank Puletua, now the General Manager of Oceania Rugby.

“Those guys are leading the way for our Pacific communities, and it just gives that sense of hope and belief for our community that it’s possible, and there is a pathway.”

Arona said he hoped to be able to inspire others.

“It’s cool to see a young Pacific Islander boy from Western Sydney, one of our own, in these positions outside of the playing arena.”.