Story: Māori–Pākehā relations

Page 4. Sport and race

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From early colonial times Māori competed keenly against Europeans in a variety of sports. Horse racing was the first sport to gain widespread popularity. Rugby eventually became the favourite sport for men of both races, and for much of the 20th century the rugby field was the one arena of national life in which 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). After one match a Sydney newspaper 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 that is still worn by today’s All Blacks.

George Nēpia

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. Until after the Second World War it was the only winter game available to boys in most New Zealand schools. By the 1920s, Māori footballers had developed the country’s distinctive fast, open style of play.

Great George


The noted historian, politician and diplomat William Pember Reeves was a star cricketer and also played one rugby match for Canterbury. Half a century later he wrote a poem celebrating George Nēpia’s skills as All Blacks fullback:

Kia toa, New Zealand. See
Nepia guards the gate.
A rock and a house of defence is he
A tino tangata great.2


George Nēpia became a national hero after his performance in the triumphant 1924–25 All Blacks tour to the northern hemisphere. He had begun 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 New Zealand Māori tour to Australia in 1935 because Māori leader Apirana 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 missed the 1928 tour to South Africa when he and other Māori were excluded from the first racially selected All Black team. The South African team first visited New Zealand in 1921, and when it played New Zealand Maoris 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 this high regard, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union excluded Māori from teams touring South Africa until 1970.

All Blacks haka

The haka, the feature of New Zealand rugby best known internationally, was first performed by the touring Natives team in Surrey, England in 1888. It was only performed overseas until 1975, when Scotland was greeted with a haka in Auckland. During the 1985 All Blacks 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 performed a new haka, ‘Kapa o Pango’, before a test match against South Africa in Dunedin.

  1. Quoted in Malcolm Mullholland, Beneath the Māori moon: an illustrated history of Māori rugby. Wellington: Huia, 2009, p. 4. Back
  2. George Nepia and others, I, George Nepia: the autobiography of a rugby legend. London: London League, 2002, p. 151. Back
  3. Beneath the Māori moon, p. 39. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Māori–Pākehā relations - Sport and race', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011