Nigel Vagana’s mission to improve player welfare in rugby league

Former Toa Samoa, Nigel Vagana, is working towards improving the welfare of rugby league players, with a primary focus on the majority of players who are Pasifika/Maori.

Vagana, who works as the General Manager of Football and Wellbeing for the New Zealand Rugby League, went on Radio Sport’s D’Arcy Waldegrave Drive show recently to talk about his role.

He told Waldegrave that what drives him is helping people coming from those environments.

“80% of our game in New Zealand is Pasifika/Maori. Across the NRL environment, probably about 57% of the game is Pasifika, Maori and Indigenous,” Vagana said.

“Our game actually provides a lot of these communities with opportunities to escape their reality.

They come from low social areas, they come from challenges that are probably a bit unique to their world.

“And I think for me it’s just about how do we get these guys, who are given an opportunity because they run a bit faster, or they can tackle, or they can kick, how do we get them to understand how they can maximise their opportunity and support them as best we can, because if they can make it out of the environment they’re in, then they can take their family and their kids out.”

Vagana said he has been working on and off in the wellbeing space for the last 10 years or so since his retirement as a player:

“Because of the scrutiny we’ve had, and it seems like we’ve always kinda had in our environment, it’s probably rushed us to set [wellbeing programmes] up a bit quicker than other codes.”

However he noted that the issues aren’t limited to particular sports or demographics, rather they exist across all walks of life.

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“People come into sport for a reason; how can we help them when they’re under our care,” Vagana said.

The process for Vagana and his team starts with players aged 14 or 15:

“We start getting them to understand the environment they’re potentially coming into, getting them to understand more about themselves, a bit more about the opportunity and the environment that they’ve come from, some of their behaviours.”

He said that’s stage one of a long, comprehensive process.

“As you go through if you sort of get an opportunity and get picked, and you continue on in the next couple years, then we sort of take it up a notch,” Vagana said

Some of the areas covered in the programmes include mental health, financial literacy and career education, and Vagana said what they work on is tailored to suit the audience.

He noted how hard it can be to evaluate success in the field:

“If we stop someone from doing something silly, or doing something they or their family are gonna regret later, you can’t measure it.”

However Vagana said there are some ways one can tell the work is making a difference.

He said between 2012 and 2017, New Zealand Rugby League achieved their goal of having over 84% of players doing something away from sport.

“Whether that be doing a course, doing some study, doing an apprenticeship, doing work, going to uni, whatever it is,” Vagana said.

“There’s a lot of guys that are doing a lot of good things off the field, and I guess that justifies a lot of the work we’re doing.”

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