From early colonial times Māori keenly competed against Europeans in a variety of sports. Horse racing was the first to gain widespread popularity. Rugby eventually became the favourite sport of both races and for most of the 20th century the rugby field was the one arena of national life where Māori and non-Māori met on equal terms.
First Māori rugby players
The first Māori known to play rugby was Wirihana, who appeared for Wanganui ‘Country’ in 1872 in a 20-a-side game against their urban counterparts. When the first national team toured New South Wales in 1884, its members included Jack Taiaroa (Ngāi Tahu) and Joseph Warbrick (Ngāti Rangitihi). A Sydney newspaper later described Taiaroa as ‘the hero of the day’1. Joe Warbrick and four of his brothers took part in the first overseas tour beyond Australia, the Natives Tour of 1888–89. The first official New Zealand rugby team in 1893 was captained and coached by Tom Ellison of Ngāi Tahu and Te Āti Awa. He designed the black uniform with silver fern still worn by today’s All Blacks.
After the triumphant 1905–6 All Black tour of Britain, France and North America, when Southland Māori Billy Stead was vice-captain, rugby became far more popular in New Zealand. Before the Second World War it was the only winter game available to boys in most New Zealand schools, and united the whole country. By the 1920s Māori had developed the country’s fast, open style of play.
The noted historian, politician and diplomat William Pember Reeves played rugby for Canterbury as a young man. Later he wrote a poem celebrating George Nēpia’s skills as a fullback for the New Zealand team:
George Nēpia became a national hero after his performance in the triumphant 1924–25 All Black overseas tour. He began playing rugby as a boy in Wairoa, with a horse paddock for a field and a cap for the ball. He was regarded as the greatest fullback of all time, but could only afford to join a Māori All Black tour to Australia in the 1930s because Māori leader Āpirana Ngata gave him three suits to wear. Ngata was convinced that Māori participation in rugby, as in warfare, enhanced his people’s esteem among Pākehā.
Māori and apartheid rugby
Nēpia played for the All Blacks throughout the 1920s, missing only the 1928 tour to South Africa, when he was excluded from the first racially selected All Black team. The South African team first visited New Zealand in 1921, and when it played the Māori team in Napier, the crowd’s response led a South African reporter to write that he could not understand why a white man would cheer for a Māori team. The Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union responded that the writer ‘does not know or understand how highly the Maori race is regarded by his fellow Pakeha citizens’.3 Despite such high regard, the New Zealand Rugby Union continued to exclude outstanding Māori from teams playing South Africa until the 1960s.
All Black haka
The haka, the feature of New Zealand rugby best known internationally, was first performed by the touring Natives team in Surrey, England in 1889. It was only performed before overseas games until 1975, when Scotland was greeted with a haka in Auckland. During the 1985 All Black tour of Argentina, team members Hika Reid and Buck Shelford made sure that, for the first time, the whole team knew the words and the correct actions. In 2005 the All Blacks introduced a new haka, ‘Kapa o Pango’, before a match against South Africa in Dunedin.