Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Māori and sport – hākinakina

by Basil Keane

Since European sports were introduced to New Zealand in the 19th century Māori have taken them up with enthusiasm. Some, such as rugby and netball, have proved more popular with Māori than others. Many of New Zealand’s sporting greats have been Māori, including rugby player George Nēpia and, more recently, squash player Leilani Rorani.

Māori and sport in the 19th century

When Europeans arrived in New Zealand they brought their sports with them. For Europeans civilisation and sport went hand in hand, and they attempted to involve Māori in European sports. Māori did take up these new sports but often gave each game a unique cultural flavour. Some sports, such as rugby, proved more popular than others, such as cricket.

Māori formed tribal teams, organised inter-tribal competitions, constructed tennis courts on marae and included sporting competitions at annual hui.

Sports and colonisation

In 1888 London newspaper the Times regarded as: ‘a tribute to our colonizing faculty [that] [t]he colonizing race … can imbue the aboriginal inhabitants of the colonized countries with a love for its national games … Wherever the Englishman goes he carries the bat and the goal posts.‘1


There are scattered examples of Māori playing cricket from the early 19th century. In 1832, missionary Henry Williams noted a game of cricket in Paihia, in the Bay of Islands, in which Māori and Pākehā boys played together. In 1835 English naturalist Charles Darwin observed Māori playing cricket in Waimate, also in Northland. In 1848 Lady Ann Martin, commenting on the preparation of St John’s College native schools, noted, ‘There were playing fields for cricket (at which the Maori boys were quite equal to their English companions and partners).’2

Māori teams are recorded as playing Pākeha teams. For example, a report from 1882 has a junior Māori cricket club playing against the woollen factory boy’s club at Kaiapoi. The Māori team got 94 runs against the Pākehā boys’ 35. One player, J. Uru (probably John Hopere Wharewiti Uru), with 39 runs, scored more than the entire woollen factory team.

Māori teams also played each other. In 1898, in a match between Raetihi Māori and Pipiriki Māori, Pipiriki batted first and scored 46 runs, followed by Raetihi who scored 85. In Pipiriki’s second innings they scored 55 runs for 3 wickets before play was called off due to a thunderstorm. The game was awarded to Pipiriki by agreement, because the team had only been together for a couple of weeks.

A few Māori players represented provincial cricket sides. They included John Grey (Jack) Taiaroa, who represented Hawke’s Bay as a batsman through the 1890s and John Hopere Wharewiti Uru (Ngāi Tahu), who played for Canterbury as a fast bowler in the 1890s.

However, historically cricket has not been a game that has attracted high numbers of Māori players. While Te Aute College attempted to foster the game, a key difficulty was that boarding schools had summer holidays in the middle of the cricket season.


Boxing (mekemeke in Māori) has long had Māori participants. In 1883 Ngāpuhi boxer Herbert Slade fought the American heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan at Madison Square Garden in New York, in front of 130,000 people. He lost in the third round.


The first recorded Māori rugby player was named Wirihana, and was probably Wirihana Puna, lieutenant under Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp) in the New Zealand wars. He took part in a game at Aramoho, Whanganui, in 1872.

1888–89 Native team

Joe Warbrick was responsible for the creation of the 1888 Native team. The squad was initially intended to comprise only Māori players but, with a lack of depth in certain positions, management invited five non-Māori to join. Included in the team were five Warbrick brothers (Ngāti Rangitihi) and a player who would become one of New Zealand’s most famous: Thomas (Tamati) Rangiwāhia Ellison. Ellison is credited with being the first to put the silver fern on the black background of their team jersey, which later became a national emblem. He also captained the first official New Zealand team and wrote a coaching manual, The art of rugby football (1902).

The 1888 Natives toured New Zealand, Australia and the British Isles for 15 months, playing 108 rugby games. It was the first time a New Zealand-based team had sailed further than Australia, and remains the longest rugby tour ever.


In 1889 a Native Baseball Club was formed, with headquarters at Waiwhetū (Lower Hutt). A list of the members and office-holders shows that many well-known Te Ātiawa families were involved with the club: the president was Ēnoka Te Taitea, vice president was Pero Teone, the captain was T. M. Tāniora Love and the secretary and treasurer was Utiku Love.


In the 1890s two Māori pole vaulters, Jimmy Te Paa and Hori Eruera, were world-class athletes whose heights were in line with those of the best northern hemisphere athletes. Eruera won the Australasian title in 1897 and Te Paa did the same in 1899.

    • Quoted in Greg Ryan, Forerunners of the All Blacks: the 188889 New Zealand Native football team in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1993, p. 50. Back
    • Lady Martin, Our Maoris. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1884, p. 63, (last accessed 13 August 2013). Back

Māori and sport in the early 20th century

A 1901 report in the Māori language newspaper He Kupu Whakamarama about the success of Māori playing polo on the East Coast made observations about what sports Māori were interested in: ‘We have seen Māori are keen on athletics particularly racing and jumping, [rugby] football, tennis and golf. Cricket is the game which has not yet managed to attract Māori interest.’1

Formation of Māori teams

Sometimes specifically Māori teams formed because Māori were living in communities separate from Pākehā. In other cases, Māori teams were formed because Māori were not permitted to play in local European teams. For example, Māori cyclists, while allowed to ride alongside Pākehā in the North Island at the turn of the 20th century, were required to race in separate competitions in the South Island. National Māori teams were also formed to travel overseas and often combined sports with cultural entertainment.


A few Māori cricketers continued to play at provincial levels. Wiri Aurunui Baker played for Wellington, scoring 1,835 runs at an average of 31.63 between 1911 and 1929, and also played for New Zealand against New South Wales. His brother George also played for Wellington in the early 1920s. In 1923 a Māori cricket club was formed in Wellington.


Māori have had a long and successful association with golf. Kurupō Tāreha of Ngāti Kahungunu won the New Zealand Amateur Championship in 1903. The New Zealand Māori Golf Association was set up in 1932, with Tāreha as its patron. A 16-year-old Walter Godfrey won the national amateur championship in 1958. The following year he refused to make himself available for a New Zealand team to a Commonwealth tournament in South Africa due to its apartheid policies. In 1967 he and fellow New Zealander Bob Charles were runners up behind US players Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at the Golf World Cup.


In 1900, at a meeting at Te Aute College it was noted that, although it was generally a sport of the upper-class Pākehā, Māori were beginning to play tennis. Many marae built grass courts and inter-marae tennis competitions became common. The New Zealand Māori Lawn Tennis Association (which later became the Aotearoa Māori Tennis Association) was formed in 1926. Founding members included Māori leaders Apirana Ngata, Taipōrutu Mitchell and Pei Te Hurinui Jones.


Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck), later a doctor and anthropologist, was the New Zealand amateur long-jump champion in 1900 and 1903.


Rugby continued to be a popular game for Māori in the 20th century. In 1910 the first official Māori rugby team toured Australia. In 1919 the issue of sporting contacts with South Africa arose and affected New Zealand rugby for generations. Because of South Africa’s policy of racial segregation, two members of a New Zealand inter-services team – Ranji Wilson (of West Indian descent) and Parekura Tureia (Ngāti Porou) – were not allowed to play in South Africa. In 1928 rugby great George Nēpia (Ngāti Porou) was left out of the All Black team which toured South Africa.

Rugby league

Many Māori converted from rugby union to rugby league – at that time rugby union was an amateur game, while rugby league was professional, and so making a living playing sport had its attractions. In 1908 a Māori rugby league team toured Australia. This was followed up by another tour to Australia in 1909 and one to Great Britain in 1910. An international game between the New Zealand Māori team and Great Britain was played in 1910.

    • He Kupu Whakamarama, April 1901, p. 9. Back

Māori and sport from the late 20th century


The tradition of successful Māori golfers continued into the 21st century. In 1992 a New Zealand team that included two Māori golfers, Phil Tataurangi and Michael Campbell, won the Eisenhower trophy, the international men’s amateur team golf championship. Individually, Tataurangi came first and Campbell second. In 2005 Campbell won the US Open. Campbell and Tataurangi were also individual winners of the Māori golfing tournament.

Frances Taumata (née Pere) (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Rongomaiwahine) was the New Zealand Māori Golf Ladies’ Champion in 1970 and a New Zealand representative. In 2012, Kate Chadwick won the women’s section of the New Zealand Māori Golf Championship. Leanne Baker, one of leading contemporary Māori players, was also one of the top New Zealand players in the 2000s.


Though Māori had some early success in cricket, it was not until 1990 that a Māori player, Adam Parore (Ngāpuhi) would represent New Zealand in a test match. A number of players with Māori ancestry have now played for New Zealand. Well-known bowlers of modern times are Darryl Tuffey (Te Ātiawa) and Shane Bond (Ngāi Tahu). In 2001 a New Zealand Māori team played in the 2001 Pacific Cup against other Pacific nations and won. The team included Peter McGlashan (Ngāti Porou) and 16-year-old Jesse Ryder.

Maia Lewis was a captain of the White Ferns women’s cricket team in the 1990s and 2000s, playing in both one-day internationals and tests.


In 2006 the Aotearoa Māori Tennis Association celebrated the 80th anniversary of its competition. Tamati Reedy, academic and former senior public servant, was kaumātua of the association. Notable Māori tennis players have included Ruia Morrison (Te Arawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa) who played in the 1950s and 1960s. She is considered one of New Zealand’s greatest players. Kelly Evernden (Ngāti Porou) was a professional player in the 1980s and 1990s and played at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Australian Open. From the mid-1990s women players Rewa Harriman (née Hudson) (Te Whakatōhea), Leanne Baker (Tainui) and Shelley Stephens (Ngāpuhi) were winners of the New Zealand women’s tennis title. In 2007 Mose Harvey (Ngāti Porou) won the ITF (International Tennis Federation) World Super Seniors Men’s 70s singles title. In 2013 winners of the Aotearoa Māori Tennis Association championship singles were Paige Hourigan (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) for the women’s title and Kyle Butters (Te Arawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa) for the men’s title.


From the late 1950s Māori were heavily involved in netball, which was known as women’s basketball until 1970. Even earlier, Margaret Matangi (Te Atiawa, Taranaki and Ngāti Mutunga) was the first national captain in 1938. Players such as Mirth Te Moananui (Tainui) and Rebecca Faulkner were New Zealand representatives and have been inducted into the Māori Sports Hall of Fame. In 2012 former player Waimarama Taumaunu coached the Silver Ferns, and the team included Māori players Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit and Jody Brown (nee Te Huna). The Aotearoa Māori Netball Tournament celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012.


The best-known Māori football player of the late 20th century was Wynton Rufer (Ngāti Porou) who was named Oceania player of the century by the Oceania Confederation. He played professional football in Europe and played for the All Whites (the national men’s football team) in the FIFA World Cup in 1982.

In the 1990s Heremaia (Harry) Ngata played for the All Whites. At the 2010 FIFA World Cup there were a number of players with Māori heritage in the All Whites: Leo Bertos, Rory Fallon, Jeremy Christie and Winston Wiremu Reid.

The 2012 Football Ferns (national women’s football team), who competed at the Olympic Games, included five players with Māori heritage: Amber Hearn (Ngāpuhi), Kristy Hill (Te Arawa), Rebecca Smith (Ngāi Tahu), Abby Erceg (Ngāpuhi) and Rebecca Rolls (Ngāti Porou).


Pero Cameron (Ngāti Hine) and his sister Jody Cameron played in the Tall Blacks (men’s basketball team) and the Tall Ferns (women’s basketball team) respectively. Pero captained the Tall Blacks to fourth place in the 2002 world championships and was the only non-NBA (US National Basketball Association) player to make the all-stars team at the tournament. Some of Pero’s other siblings have represented New Zealand at a junior level.

Other well-known Māori basketball players include Paul Henare (Ngāti Kahungunu) and Paora Winitana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahungunu). Paora Winitana is also a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church). The church has an important influence on basketball and Māori. Church College in Hamilton was a Mormon school that fostered basketball talent and had significant Māori attendance. In 2011 a New Zealand Māori team competed at the Aotearoa Asia Pacific Men’s Basketball tournament, and in 2013 a Māori team competed in the Native American Basketball Invitational tournament.


There has long been strong Māori involvement in softball. In 2013 Māori players in the Black Sox (national men’s softball team) included Ben Enoka (Ngāpuhi), Brad Rona (Te Ātiawa), Tyson Byrne (Ngāti Porou), Jarrad Martin (Te Ātiawa) and Nathan Nukunuku (Ngāti Porou).


The Nga Hau e Wha Māori squash tournament has been running since the 1980s. It was first hosted by Tainui in Te Awamutu in 1981. Well-known Māori squash players include Leilani Rorani (née Joyce), who is a former world number one and winner of the British Open in 1999 and 2000, and Shelley Kitchen, who won a silver in the doubles and bronze in the singles at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.


The strong representation of Māori in the All Blacks continued into the 2000s. In 2010 the Māori All Blacks celebrated their centenary. Prominent Māori players at the 2011 Rugby World Cup included Piri Weepu and Hosea Gear. The highly successful Black Ferns (national women’s rugby team) have had a high proportion of Māori players, and were captained to their first three world cup victories by Farah Palmer (Tainui and Ngāti Maniapoto).

The Aotearoa Women’s Rugby Sevens Team – a Māori women’s team – was so successful it won the international women’s sevens title in 2013.

In 2010 a Māori team competed in the World Indigenous Touch tournament.

Rugby league

Benji Marshall was an iconic Māori player in the 2000s and a significant number of Māori were in the Kiwi (national rugby league) team. In 2005 Women’s Rugby League World Cup the New Zealand Māori women’s team knocked out the Australian team, which meant an all-New Zealand final, with New Zealand Māori playing the Kiwi Ferns.

Māori sports participation in the 2000s

A 2007/8 survey of Māori participation in sport showed that Māori have different patterns of participation in sports compared to the New Zealand population as a whole. Sports in which Māori competed in disproportionate numbers include touch rugby, waka ama, rugby union and rugby league for men, and netball, touch rugby and basketball for women.

Māori women

Almost a quarter (23%) of Māori women who played a sport played netball as compared to 10% of all New Zealand women who played a sport.

Touch rugby was also popular with Māori women – 16% played compared to 6% of all New Zealand women.

Māori women are also strongly represented in basketball, where 9% of Māori women play, while only 4% of all New Zealand women do. The significant numbers of Māori women and men playing basketball has been partially due to the strong influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) in Māori society.

Only 7% of Māori women play golf and tennis compared to 10% in each sport for all New Zealand women. This is despite the fact that Māori have historically been strong in both sports.

Māori men

The top sport played by Māori men is touch rugby – which is played by a very significant 35% of Māori men who play sport, as compared to 14% of all New Zealand men who play sport.

Like other New Zealand males, 28% of Māori males play golf. Māori have a history of successful golf players, including Michael Campbell and Phillip Tataurangi.

Around a quarter of Māori men played rugby union, compared to 11% of all New Zealand males.

Rugby league was a significant game for Māori and played by 17% of Māori males compared to 4% for all New Zealand males.

Basketball was played by 17% of Māori males compared to less than half that for all New Zealand males (8%).

Notable Māori sportspeople

While Māori have featured more strongly in certain sports than in others, successful Māori sports people can be found across a variety of sports.


Maia Lewis played for the White Ferns (the national women’s cricket team) in the 1990s and 2000s, and was captain of the team. The first Māori male to play a test for the Black Caps was Adam Parore (wicket keeper and batsman) in 1990. Other important Māori players have included Darryl Tuffey (bowler), Shane Bond (bowler) and Jesse Ryder (batsman).

American football

Riki Ellison (Ngāi Tahu) is a former linebacker who played in the NFL (the US professional National Football League). He was the first Māori and first New Zealander to do so. He won three Super Bowls while playing with the San Francisco 49ers. David Tukatahi Dixon was the second Māori to play in the NFL, playing for the Minnesota Vikings from 1994 to 2004. Both Ellison and Dixon are members of the Māori Sports Hall of Fame.


Simon Wi Rutene competed in four Winter Olympics, the first in 1984. He was the New Zealand flag bearer at the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary.


Farah Palmer captained the Black Ferns (national women’s rugby team) in the first three of New Zealand’s wins in the Women’s Rugby World Cup (1998, 2002 and 2006).

Other rugby greats include George Nēpia in the 1920s and 1930s, and Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford (who, as captain of the All Blacks from 1987 to 1990, never lost a game).

Rugby league

Renowned Māori rugby league players have included Hugh McGahan, Howie Tamati, Tawera Nikau, Stacey Jones and Benji Marshall.


Margaret Matangi, Margaret Forsyth and Waimarama Taumaunu were all significant international netball players.

Water Sports

Rangitāne’s John (Hoani) MacDonald won gold in the fours and silver in the eights at the 1930 Empire Games, and was a member of the eight which finished fourth at the 1932 Olympics, in which he was New Zealand’s flagbearer. In 2012 he was the only rower to have been inducted into Te Whare Mātāpuna o Te Ao Māori / the Māori Sports Hall of Fame.

Lisa Carrington (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Ngāti Porou), a flatwater canoeist, won gold at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, and also won gold in the women’s K-1 200 metres at the 2012 Olympic games. Storm Uru (Ngāi Tahu) won the gold medal along with Peter Taylor at the 2009 World Rowing Championships. He also won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, rowing with Taylor.


Perhaps the two best known Māori tennis players are Ruia Morrison (Te Arawa) and Kelly Evernden (Ngāti Porou).


Gina Weber was one of the great players of the White Sox national women’s softball team. Robert ‘Chubb’ Tangaroa was a pitcher in the Black Sox national men’s team.


Pero Cameron captained the New Zealand team from 2000 to 2010. Perhaps the most significant achievement for the Tall Blacks while he was captain was finishing fourth at the world championships in 2002.


Leilani Rorani (née Joyce) is a former world number one squash player, who twice won the British Open.


Millie Khan (Ngāti Rangitihi) won 12 national bowls titles and a silver and bronze at the Commonwealth Games.


Wynton Rufer was voted the Oceania player of the century. He played professionally overseas before returning to New Zealand and is one of New Zealand’s football greats.


One of the most significant Māori athletes actually competed for Australia. Jai Taurima won a silver medal in the long jump at the 2000 Olympics.


Earl Parariki Hauparoa Nikora (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui), nicknamed ‘The Rock’, was described in the 1960s as the greatest Māori boxer and was a challenger for the British Empire middleweight title. He was also holder of the New Zealand middleweight and lightweight titles, and the Australasian middleweight title. Shane Cameron (Rongomaiwahine) won the New Zealand heavyweight title in 2004 before embarking on a successful professional career.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Māori and sport – hākinakina', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 September 2013