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Former All Black Pita Alatini on navigating cultural identity and mental health in rugby

Former All Black Pita Alatini is proud to be raised in Ōtara, South Auckland, a place where he received one of the biggest opportunities in his life as a young boy that helped shape who he is today.

The misunderstood suburb of Ōtara has a history of being the fastest-growing in New Zealand with the arrival of Pacific migrants following World War II, and even now is known to be one of the most multicultural areas in Auckland.  

Fast-growing meant there were different ways of living for Māori and Pasifika, for example Pasifika lived with extended family where garages and sleepouts were converted to rooms.

Tongan-born Alatini moved to New Zealand with his parents when he was two years old and his home became a safe haven for other family members, producing some of the most fond memories for him. 

“We had a big family house that constantly had at least 17 people, aunties, uncles and cousins, who were settling in New Zealand before they moved out, so it was always busy. Dad got a garage, not for cars, but for all the boys to sleep in, fulfilling the cultural aspects of being Tongan with boys and girls sleeping apart,” Alatini said.

“Playing games and having fun was a huge factor in keeping us engaged in something positive.”

While attending Ferguson Intermediate based in Ōtara, he was one of the first to get offered a scholarship to one of the most prestigious Auckland boys’ schools, King’s College.

“I got it through my pālagi (NZ European) parents, the Willis [family] (Rod and Sue). I played with their son Ben who I became best friends with and they put my name forward. They thought the opportunity was a great way for me to explore,” Alatini said.

“The first three years there was a tough time to navigate through and seeing where I fit within the school because there were very few Māori and Pasifika students, and if there were, they were of high status in their community – princes and chiefly sons.

“They were beautiful people though and I was lucky enough to have a headmaster who gave me pastoral support, but there were times of self-doubt because I would leave school and go back to reality with 17 people at home in Ōtara.”

To add more context on how unusual it was to see Pasifika students at King’s College, it was difficult for people of his own kind to understand. Alatini would catch the bus to Middlemore in Māngere, and a stop before would be where students from De La Salle College would hop off who had similar maroon-coloured uniforms.

“One day the bus driver questioned me why I was still on the bus passing Middlemore and I replied that I actually go to the school up the road [King’s College], he didn’t believe me and said I needed to get out. I said I go to that school (pointing at King’s) just take me there. Anyways, he took me there, I got off and he just stared.”

Alatini persevered through the cultural identity challenges throughout high school and went on to make the King’s College 1st XV team. On the podcast he also talks about how his life was a balancing act, having his first-born daughter, juggling a relationship among becoming an All Black. 

He reflects on the impact moments have had on his mental health without even realising and credits the support made available today through programmes such as Mind Set Engage, New Zealand Rugby’s mental health and wellbeing programme.

Alatini is currently a Mind Set Engage workshop facilitator in the community and has helped rugby club members on their mental health journey particularly in encouraging members to seek help and help others.

Note: Anyone seeking advice on mental health or wellbeing, or experiencing stress, anxiety or depression, can free call or text 1737 to chat to a trained professional.  

About NZR Around the Grounds podcast

NZR Around the Grounds is a New Zealand Rugby podcast bringing you closer to our national game. Hear from people at the heart of rugby in Aotearoa New Zealand and get an inside view on initiatives, stories and hot topics driving our sport.

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