Sport | Touch

Is it time for touch to go pro?

Māori mixed touch captains talk about their upcoming All-Stars game against the Indigenous Australian team and the potential viewership if touch turns professional.

Tonight two indigenous cultures will play in an all-star rugby league game but the entertainment beforehand may be another spectacle.

The Māori All-Stars touch team will face the Australian indigenous All-Stars touch team in a mixed touch game.

It’s the curtain raiser before the big rugby league games between Māori All Stars and Indigenous Australia All-Stars.

Co-captain Takoha Ropati (Ngāti Hine / Ngāti Ranginui / Ngāti Hāmoa) feels proud to represent his people and says it’s the first trip where everything has been paid for.

“This wouldn’t be possible without having our indigenous brothers and sisters on this side, it’s about the kotahitanga, the collective. It’s not just about the sport it’s about utilising this platform to express our mana of being rangatira or chiefs from our different nations.

I think more than just the game it’s about elevating and representing our people. We are role models and there are some pressing issues we can relate to with being indigenous people.”

Since the invention of touch football in the early 1960s as a training technique for rugby league, it has also been a scouting ground for players to play professionally in both rugby union and league.

Notable names came from the game, such as Benji Marshall (former NZ Kiwis), Kaylyn Ponga (Australian Kangaroos), Richie Mo’unga (former All Black), and Nehe Milner-Skudder (former All Black).

Yet the game has never turned professional.

Takoha believes the touch highlights shown on social media can be given an even bigger spotlight if more kaupapa like their game is done regularly.

“Touch is so appealing - you see highlight reels and the number of people who engage in those short clips -thousands and thousands of people are watching these. I give it up to all our content creators but that’s only just a snippet of the potential of the reach that touch can create.

“The closest thing I’ve ever felt to professional sport is this experience for the NRL Māori All-Stars,” he says.

Before Covid the National Rugby League (NRL) hosted their own Touch Premiership which enabled players to be paid by different clubs where they featured in curtain raisers before NRL matches.

Co-captain Marama Thomas says that playing before this rugby league match is one of the biggest platforms their sport can get and is hungry for more.

“I would love to see this on an Olympic platform - the sport is so dynamic and all the skills in this sport alone can transfer across many sports and I think there’s a lot of potential for growth.”

The game will take place in Townsville Australia as the curtain raiser between the women’s and men’s rugby league matches.

Both teams will play at 1:40 pm AEST which means the weather will be near 30 degrees, something new for the whole team as none of them are based in Townsville.

Co-captain Marama Thomas (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) plays on the Gold Coast and says she’s never experienced playing in such heat.

“This is like a whole different kind of heat from the Gold Coast - it’s very humid.

“Just definitely staying hydrated and looking after our bodies, I think we’re even going to try and invest in some sweat towels or something just to keep us nice and cool.”

The touch football match between Māori and Indigenous Australia ‘taps off’ at 6:40 pm NZ Time on Sky Television.