‘Absolutely overwhelmed’: First-ever Māori Pasifika water polo tournament ‘flabbergasted’ by registrations

A first-ever Māori Pasifika water polo tournament is set to be staged in the Bay of Plenty in February.

More than 260 competitors have registered to attend the 9 to 11 February event at Baywave Aquatic Centre in Mount Maunganui, which will host under 12 age grade players through to under 14, 16 and open grade.

“We’ve been flabbergasted with the response. We’re absolutely overwhelmed with the numbers, it’s been quite incredible,” says Wayne Rickit (Ngāti Tarāwhai, Ngā Puhi), who is a committee member of Māori Pasifika Water Polo, which was formed earlier this year as a new initiative after three to four years of kōrero.

“We will have players from all parts of the motu taking part, even from Te Waipounamu making the trip.”

Rickit says this kind of event has never been done before. “So there’s a strong sense of pride and enthusiasm from the whānau to make it happen.”

“A lot of our kids are of part Māori Pasifika descent so there’s a lot of crossover,” he says.

“There’s been a groundswell of support to get this event underway this year. To be honest, we’re actually oversubscribed.”

Rickit says they are working with local kura to get two teams into the local competition.

“The drive behind it is we want to get Māori kids - and Pasifika kids too, of course - into swimming. Water polo is a really good mix to get those kids in the water because they can learn to survive in deep water.

“The focus here, I know it sounds really idealistic, we’re going to try and get these kids to play water polo, and we’re going to get them coached by a local swim club here that has a Māori swim instructor-coach.

“And then we’re going to put those kids into the local competition next year with the ultimate aim of getting those kids into AIMS, which is an intermediate sports event where they can play water polo.”

Rickit says the organisation is hopeful that the tournament will become a national event and points out that a number of Māori and Pasifika players have represented New Zealand, as well as overseas clubs.

One of those players is Taine Pickering (Ngā Puhi), captain of the 2023 New Zealand U20 junior world championship team and vice-captain of last year’s U18 team.

Asked for his thoughts on the tournament, Pickering said in a post on the Māori Pasifika Water Polo Facebook page, “The tournament is showing our people how great this sport really is. It gives an opportunity for the stigmas of only playing rugby to be put aside and to show them other sports that our people can excel at other than rugby.

“This tournament will hopefully help a massive growth in Māori and Pasifika kids playing water polo.”

Last month, Rickit told the Pacific Media Network that the event is intended as a celebration of Māori and Pasifika players and a way to enjoy each other’s cultures.

“It’s a festival celebration so it’s going to be a little bit more than a water polo tournament. We want our whānau to turn up and bring the noise.”

“It’s about celebrating who we are, bringing Māori and Pasifika kids together.”

Rickit says that the number of Māori and Pasifika players taking part in the sport is like “rugby in the water” and estimates that about 10-15% of the country’s 2500 registered players are coming to the tournament.

“The sport now has a phenomenal amount of Māori Pasifika players playing,” Rickit told on Saturday. “We have a big history of Māori and Pasifika players coming through the leagues.”

“I mean it’s an incredibly expensive sport because whānau are having to pay for swimming costs and to participate in a tournament as well. The double whammy of water polo is to play at a senior level you’ve actually got to be a very adequate swimmer as well. So a lot of our kids are really committed to it.”

Rickit says the tournament is a way to “bring our whānau together”. “We don’t often get to compete in this kind of unique event.”

The tournament runs from 9 to 11 February 2024 at Baywave Aquatic Centre, Mount Maunganui.