From the balmy Samoan village of Asau to country Victoria, Storrs Ualesi has always carried rugby in his soul.

“My dad is a rugby player, so it’s always in my blood,” he said.

As the only son in his family, Mr Ualesi was unable to play rugby union when he was young because he was needed around the home.

Although he eventually represented his country in an Under 17 Rugby Sevens match against Fiji, it took moving him to western Victoria for work to play the sport more consistently.

Stawell is near the small town of Moyston, where the seeds were sown for the creation of Australian Rules football.

Mr Ualesi said the region was still all about AFL.

“No disrespect, but it’s not my type,” he said.

man wearing blue and red rugby jersey makes rock on gestures surrounded by team mates with fist pumps.
Storrs Ualesi says the Samoa team has grown with players from other Pacific islands.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

“In Fiji, everyone would die for rugby; it runs in the blood, it runs in the family, it runs in the community,” teammate Iosefo Katirewa said.

Mr Katirewa has played rugby union since he was a child.

“When there’s a rugby match, villages, town they sit down and just focus on rugby,” he said.

Stawell Mounties captain Taylor Langwell came from New Zealand and was raised in a strictly rugby union-only family.

But he became the “black sheep” when he defected to play rugby league at state level until he shattered his jaw.

players wearing a red and sky blue rugby jersey with white shorts clap and cheer seated on a bench
Many of the players from Pacific nations are on temporary visas to help fill labour shortages.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

Rugby league in Aussie Rules heartland

When he moved to Australia, Mr Langwell found it hard not having mates he could watch the rugby with.

He said the idea to start a rugby league team in Stawell was conceived during a car ride to watch NRL team Melbourne Storm play.

Mr Langwell said it was initially hard gaining traction with less than 10 players showing up.

“But once we started training properly and got jerseys, the word got out,” he said.

“All of these boys came out of the woodwork to the point where we actually needed to close our registrations ’cause we had too many players.”

man with black headband and blue and red jersey addresses teammates in a huddle.
Taylor Langwell says the team provides the migrants with a familiar space to build camaraderie.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

Mr Ualesi discovered the Mounties after a chance meeting with a player who had just finished training.

A week later, he was a Mountie donning their characteristic red and sky-blue kit.

They now make regular trips to Naracoorte, Warrnambool and Mt Gambier, three hours away to play in the Limestone Coast League.

Migration driving the game

Like many of his teammates, Mr Ualesi and Mr Katirewa work for an Ararat manufacturer of electrical wiring for trucks, trains, and planes.

Under the government’s Pacific Australia Labour Migration (PALM) scheme, they are just some of the 26,500 temporary workers from the Pacific Islands recruited nationwide to fill chronic labour shortages on farms, orchards, abattoirs and factories.

A spokesperson from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations said the program encouraged migrants and their employers to help them build connections through sport and volunteerism with their host community.

A rugby scrum with a team in green shirts, shorts and socks, and another in red and blue shirt white shorts. ref in pink
The Stawell Mounties are top of the Limestone Coast League in their 2022 debut season.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

“We have seen an increase in participation from PALM workers in sporting clubs which provides a connection to the community and assists with the overall welfare of workers,” they said.

For the past 14 consecutive years, NRL Victoria has also seen statewide growth of rugby league’s popularity.

NRL Victoria general manager Brent Silva said that since 2015 the sport grew by 50 per cent from 400 to 600 registered players in the regions.

Clubs operated in Sunraysia, Goulburn Murray and western Victoria where players from Pacific Island are over-represented.

“We’re talking high 80s, low 90 per cent of our registered club participants are of Pasifika or Maori heritage,” Mr Silva said.

“Being able to provide rugby league in those regional areas gives them a sport they’re more connected to, given that’s what they’re exposed to from a heritage perspective.”

A man wearing a sky blue and red jersey holding a rugby ball and water bottle smiles
Iosefo Katirewa has represented his province in Fiji.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

Home away from home

“All of those boys have come from islands where they’ve left their families behind,” Mr Langwell said .

“We wanted to put something together for them to give them that camaraderie, that brothership, with that sense of family, being so far away.

“It’s also a bit daunting for some of them coming into this culture being so different to the islands so this gives them a bit of common ground to socialise with each other,” he said.

Mr Katirewa says the bonds among the multicultural team are strong.

Mr Ualesi said his Fijian and New Zealand teammates all had different playing styles and learnt from each other to grow as a team.

“We all want to support the team and put the Mounties up… [it’s] not only for us but for the kids as a role model for them,” Mr Ualesi who also spent time as a missionary in New Zealand, said.

a man with slicked back long curly hair takes a kick of a rugby ball. his teammates spring behind him
Many of the players played rugby union competitively before they arrived in Australia.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

“They’ve been huge for us,” Mr Langwell, said.

“They’ve all got experience all in rugby union, but we’ve slowly changed that into league.”

In this debut season, the Mounties have been sitting at the top of the ladder and a premiership match is likely.

“Watch out — Mounties on the way,” Mr Ualesi proclaimed right before he thanked his “missus” for driving him to each training.

“We cannot wait to play more games and do what we love,” he said.