Māori have had a long involvement in the sport of rugby. The first recorded Māori player, Wirihana, was probably Wirihana Puna, a lieutenant under Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp) during the New Zealand wars. He took part in a game at Aramoho, Whanganui, in 1872.
From individual involvement came the formation of rugby clubs in which all or the majority of players were Māori. A Māori club, Hauraki, was formed in 1883.
Māori have enjoyed strong representation in the All Blacks over the years. The very first New Zealand national team, which toured New South Wales in 1884, included Māori players Jack Taiaroa (Ngāi Tahu) and Joe Warbrick (Te Arawa).
In the 2000s the Māori All Blacks (formerly called New Zealand Maoris) continued a long tradition of national Māori rugby teams.
Joe Warbrick was a key figure in the creation of the 1888/1889 Native team. The squad was initially supposed to comprise only Māori players, but with a lack of depth in certain positions, management invited five non-Māori to join. The 1888 Natives toured New Zealand, Australia, and the British Isles for 15 months, playing 107 matches. It was the first time a New Zealand-based team had sailed further than Australia, and remains the longest rugby tour ever.
The 1888/1889 Native team left an enduring contribution to rugby. They amassed 78 victories despite at times being unable to field a full team due to injury, and even on occasion playing against opposing teams of more than 15 players to make the match ‘fairer’. The team played an expansive, 15-man style of game, and has been inducted into the International Rugby Board (IRB) rugby hall of fame.
The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) was formed in 1892. Tom Ellison (Ngāi Tahu), who had played in the 1888 Native team, suggested that the national uniform include a black jersey with a silver fern. Ellison captained the first team to play under the authority of the NZRFU, in Australia the following year. Ellison invented the 2–3–2 scrum and wrote the coaching manual The art of rugby football.
The first officially sanctioned national rugby team of Māori players was assembled in 1910. The impetus for the NZRFU to agree to a Māori team came from the rival code of rugby league. In 1908 and 1909 a former New Zealand rugby representative, Albert 'Ōpai' Asher (Te Arawa) had organised New Zealand Māori rugby league teams to tour Australia. With the exodus of players to rugby league, a concern for rugby union bosses, the NZRFU allowed the founding father of Māori rugby, Wiremu 'Ned' Teihoka Parata (Ngāi Tahu), to take a team to Australia in 1910.
The end of the First World War saw the first example of the South African 'colour bar'. The New Zealand Inter-services rugby team, which had won the King's Cup in 1919, was invited to tour South Africa. The South Africans requested that no 'coloured' players be included, so Parekura Tureia of Ngāti Porou and Nathaniel ‘Ranji’ Wilson, a New Zealander with West Indian heritage, were removed from the team.
Also in 1919, members of the Māori (Pioneer) Battalion formed their own rugby team and toured England, Wales and France. The team subsequently toured New Zealand, helping the the resurgence of rugby in the provinces following the war.
In the 1920s the clash of race and rugby continued. In 1921 the South Africans toured New Zealand for the first time. Parekura Tureia got his chance to play the South Africans as he captained New Zealand Maoris in Napier, a prospect that didn’t please some of the visiting Springboks. Following the game a cable dispatched by South African journalist Charles Blackett sparked outrage. In it, Blackett commented that having to watch ‘thousands [of] Europeans frantically cheering on band of colored men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly disgusted’.1 The Springboks won 9–8 amidst controversy over the refereeing.
Māori players would be excluded from the 1928, 1949 and 1960 tours of South Africa. One result of this exclusion was that the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) became more open to allowing Māori to assert a level of autonomy.
In 1922 the Māori Advisory Board of the NZRFU was set up. In 1926 Ned Parata, the chair of the board, was granted his long-standing wish to send the New Zealand Maoris to Great Britain. The team, captained by Wattie Barclay, made a grand tour of New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), France, England, Wales and Canada in 1926–27. It played 40 matches and won 30. The side made an impression on Edward, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII). He gave each player a medal and donated the Prince of Wales cup, which, together with the Te Mori rose bowl, became the symbol of regional Māori rugby supremacy. The team left a particular imprint on the French, who adopted the Māori style of playing after being beaten by them.
In 1935 the New Zealand Maoris embarked upon a major tour of Australia. Rugby in Australia had seen mass defections towards rugby league during the economic depression. The role of the New Zealand Maoris, led by rugby great George Nēpia, was to play attractive rugby union in order to promote the game in Australia. Gate takings were at an all-time high and Australian rugby enthusiasts credited the Māori team for helping revive the sport.
In 1938 New Zealand Maoris played Fiji for the first time, drawing in a three-test series. In the 2000s New Zealand Maoris had played more games against Fiji than against any other team. Many of those encounters were part of tours to the Pacific during which Tonga and Samoa were also played.
With the All Blacks touring South Africa in 1949, the New Zealand Maoris were dispatched to Australia that same year. With Māori excluded from the team sent to play the Springboks, the New Zealand Maoris included six All Blacks – Kiwi Blake, Ron Bryers, Brownie Cherrington, Ben Couch, Tori Reid and Peter Smith. With such skilled players, the team drew the series against Australia, with one win each and one draw. The same result occurred in 1958 when New Zealand Maoris again took on the best of Australian rugby.
In 1956 the Māori team played against South Africa. In front of 60,000 fans at Eden Park in Auckland, the New Zealand Maoris were thrashed 37–0 by the tourists, In 2010 the team’s fullback, Muru Walters, suggested that Minister of Māori Affairs Ernest Corbett had told them they had to lose the game.
The New Zealand Maoris suffered indifferent results in the 1950s and 1960s, with many lamenting a loss of the Māori style of game. Many believed this was because, with increasing urbanisation, Māori players were being taught by Pākehā coaches in the cities. The low point of this period was the series loss against Tonga in 1969.
When New Zealand Maoris took on the All Blacks in 1973, All Black coach J. J. Stewart promised to bare his buttocks outside Auckland Post Office if the All Blacks lost. With 27 minutes to play and the scores locked at 8–all, Stewart must have been a worried man. However, two quick tries by Bruce Robertson removed this threat to public decency.
The rise of Māori rugby during the 1970s coincided with the 1971 appointment of former All Black Waka Nathan as coach. He advocated a style of rugby for which Māori were renowned. Many Māori players became All Blacks during this era, including All Black captain Tane Norton, Billy Bush, Kent Lambert, Eddie Stokes, Vance Stewart, Bob Barber, Ken Going, Sid Going, George Skudder and Buff Milner.
In 1975 the Māori team defeated their bogey team Tonga for the first time, after four losses since 1960.
For the New Zealand Maoris the 1980s was a tale of two tours. In 1982 they toured Wales and Spain, posting losses against Swansea, Llanelli and a Welsh XV. Six years later the side travelled to Italy, France, Argentina and Spain, winning 10 matches under the leadership of All Black captain Buck Shelford, who described the style of game they played as ‘champagne rugby’.1
The 1990s heralded a new era for Māori rugby. From 1995, under the leadership of Vietnam veteran Matt Te Pou, the New Zealand Maoris won 33 of their 38 matches, including victories over Argentina, England and Scotland. The match against the British Lions in 2005 was Te Pou’s last as coach. New Zealand Maoris finally beat the Lions at the seventh attempt.
2010 was the centenary season for the Māori All Blacks, who defeated the New Zealand Barbarians, Ireland and England. In addition, the South African government apologised for the exclusion of Māori players from past All Blacks teams. The New Zealand Rugby Union and the South African Rugby Union followed up with their own apologies.
Rugby league began in New Zealand in the 1900s. Following the 1905–6 rugby union tour of Britain by the New Zealand team, a number of players suffered financial difficulty while the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) made a significant profit. This was partly the motivation behind the organisation of an overseas rugby league tour in 1907–8, which included eight former All Blacks. The players were to share in any profits from the tour and accordingly the team was dubbed the 'All Golds'.
In 1908 former All Black Albert Asher organised an ‘All Māori’ team to play rugby league in Australia. Before leaving he informed the press that the team was travelling to play rugby union, to avoid any opposition. The side left an impression on Australian audiences with their attractive style of football. When the team returned, Asher arranged matches in New Zealand’s main centres, and some Māori players switched codes to play the 13-man game. The following year Asher organised another tour to Australia, in which the Māori team defeated Australia 16–14 in the test. This was the first league side to wear the kiwi emblem that became the symbol of the national team.
Māori rugby league received an added boost with the establishment of the New Zealand Māori Rugby League Board in 1934. The board’s first patron was the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) leader King Korokī, and the role has remained with the Kīngitanga ever since.
Three years later the New Zealand Māori team enjoyed arguably their greatest victory ever, 16–5 over the Kangaroos (Australia’s national team) at Carlaw Park, Auckland. Rugby convert George Nēpia was at fullback; Jack Hemi and Steve Watene, who were accustomed to playing there, moved to other positions to accommodate the sporting great.
The national Māori rugby league team faced the French in 1955, winning 28–20. In 1960 they played the French and lost 23–12. The 1960s ushered in a new, long-serving coach, Tommy Newton.
In 1975 New Zealand Māori fielded a team featuring future Kiwi greats Fred Ah Kuoi and Dane Sorensen to contest the inaugural Pacific Cup. They won the competition – which included Papua New Guinea, Victoria and Western Australia – undefeated, and repeated their success two years later. In 1986 the Pacific Cup was revived, and yet again New Zealand Māori were crowned the best after beating the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Tonga and Western Samoa.
For Māori rugby league the 1980s began with a courageous defensive effort to hold the Australian visitors to a 10–all draw in 1980. Three years later New Zealand Māori embarked upon a tour of Great Britain to commemorate their 75th anniversary season. The team won all eight matches. Players included Kiwi internationals Dean Bell, Joe Ropati, Nick Wright, Ron O’Regan, Ian Bell, Dick Uluave, Nolan Tupaea, Owen Wright, Clayton Friend and Tiki Cowan.
Māori league enjoyed its first victory against Great Britain in 1996, having first played this team in 1910 and encountered them on 10 occasions.
Rugby league has involved complex selection decisions for Māori where race and nationality clash. Tawera Nikau captained the Māori team in the 2000 Rugby League World Cup after making himself unavailable for the Kiwis. In 2010 Timana Tahu, who had represented Australia at rugby union and rugby league, played for the Māori league team against England. In 2012, when James Tamou was selected for the Kangaroos instead of playing for the Kiwis, his mother said, ‘He's always going to be a Maori and he's always going to be a New Zealander.’1
In New Zealand Māori’s centenary season in 2008, the side was prevented from entering ithe World Cup in Australia, despite having been allowed to take part in this competition in Britain and France in 2000.
In the 2000s rugby league in New Zealand was played mainly by Māori and Pacific Islanders. In 2001 rugby league was the fourth-most popular game for Māori males – 17% played, compared to 4% of the total male population.
New Zealand Māori played in the 2000 Rugby League World Cup alongside the Kiwis. In the 2008 World Cup, the Kiwis emerged as world champions, with a significant number of Māori in the team, including Benji Marshall, Adam Blair and Lance Hohaia, as well as coach Stephen Kearney. New Zealand Māori played a curtain-raiser against an Aboriginal Dreamtime team.
There was an annual Māori rugby league tournament.
Attempts to get women playing rugby in New Zealand date back to 1891. However, it was not until the 1980s that this involvement became significant. By the mid-1980s women’s teams in both rugby union and rugby league began emerging in the provinces and the first national women’s rugby team was selected in 1989. The team, now known as the Black Ferns, won four consecutive world cups.
Māori women have played a significant role in the team’s success. High-profile Māori players have included university lecturer Farah Palmer (Tainui and Ngāti Maniapoto), who captained the Black Ferns to their first three world cup victories, television presenter Melodie Robinson (Ngāi Tahu) and dual rugby/netball international and member of Parliament Louisa Wall (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Waikato). The Black Ferns do a haka composed by Te Whetū Tipiwai called ‘Ko uhia mai’.
Some have suggested that the high proportion of Māori women playing rugby union and league is because, in opposition to a western view of femininity, the Māori view of femininity encompasses courage and physical strength.
The Kiwi Ferns, the national women’s rugby league team, was formed in 1995. The Kiwi Ferns won three consecutive women’s rugby league world cups from the tournament’s inception in 2000.
Among the Māori women who have contributed greatly to women’s rugby league is former Kiwi Fern and coach of the side in 2012, Lynley Tierney-Mani. The New Zealand Māori women’s team played in the 2005 Women’s Rugby League World Cup and knocked out the Australian team in the semi-finals. The Australians took the Māori team lightly and rested players for the game. This meant an all-New Zealand final, with New Zealand Māori playing the Kiwi Ferns.
Historically rugby has been strong within the Māori boys’ boarding schools. Of these, Te Aute College is the most famous for the sport, with other high schools such as St Stephen’s, Hato Petera and Hato Paora also steeped in rugby tradition. Six players on the New Zealand Natives' tour were Te Aute old boys, and at least 10 former students of Te Aute have become All Blacks. In 1904 a match between Te Aute College and the Combined Great Public Schools (Sydney’s private schools) was played on the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of 30,000 spectators. In 1925 Te Aute won the Moascar Cup (first played for in 1920), symbol of secondary-school rugby supremacy. Hato Paora and Te Aute have an annual challenge.
St Stephen’s, now closed, also had a proud record, having won the Moascar Cup and, like Te Aute, the national first XV championship. While only two St Stephen’s old boys represented New Zealand, one was the renowned Joe Warbrick, who organised the New Zealand Natives' tour in 1888–89 and is a member of the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame.
When Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the Māori queen, died in 2006 she had been the patron of Māori rugby league for 40 years. Players from Taniwharau and Tūrangawaewae, two local Māori rugby league clubs, carried her coffin from the banks of the Waikato River to her resting place on Taupiri mountain.
There have been Māori-based rugby clubs from an early date. Hauraki rugby club was formed in Kirikiri, near Thames, in 1883, and Whakarewarewa rugby club was set up in the late 19th century. While a number of exclusively Māori rugby clubs were formed, most Māori played in local club sides that catered to all ethnicities. In the 2000s Ngāti Porou East Coast was the only iwi-based union in the country.
Local Māori rugby league clubs developed later, as did the game of league itself. By the 1950s there were a number of Māori clubs in Auckland, as well as the Tūrangawaewae league club in Waikato, Te Ātiawa and Waitōtara clubs in Taranaki, Huimai club in Rotorua, Te Aroha club in Wellington and Kia Toa Rugby League club in Dunedin ‘comprising mostly Maoris from “the Kaik” [the Ngāi Tahu village at Ōtākou].’1
Northern and Southern Māori teams competed for Te Mori rose bowl from 1923. In 1928 it became a four-team competition for both the bowl and the Prince of Wales Cup, between Te Waipounamu (Southern), Tai Hauāuru (Western), Tai Rāwhiti (Eastern) and Tai Tokerau (Northern).
Regional trophies include:
In 2011, as part of Māori inter-regional tournaments, teams were playing for the Prince of Wales Cup, the George Nepia Trophy, the Manny MacDonald Challenge Cup and the Jack Ruru Memorial Cup. The Dr Farah Palmer trophy was a new trophy to be presented to the top women's team in the competition.
The first national sevens tournament was held in 1975 in Auckland, with Marlborough winning. The following year the Hong Kong Sevens Tournament was launched, popularising the sport in Asia and to a worldwide audience. With the advent of other sevens competitions, including in Wellington and Dubai, the International Rugby Board launched a World Sevens Series of 10 tournaments played across the globe.
In 2018, New Zealand had won 12 series titles since the tournament began in 1999/2000. The New Zealand Sevens squad also won gold medals at the Kuala Lumpur (1998), Manchester (2002), Melbourne (2006), Delhi (2010) and Gold Coast (2018) Commonwealth Games, and silver at Glasgow (2014). Māori players who have featured prominently in sevens teams include All Blacks Zinzan Brooke, Eric Rush and Dallas Seymour. In 2005 a Northland Māori team took part in the Air Pacific International Pacific Sevens tournament.
The Aotearoa Māori Women's Sevens team won six Hong Kong Sevens Championships from 2002 to 2007 and three Rome Sevens Championships from 2010 to 2012. Due to their international success, Māori Party co-leader Tariana Turia suggested that they should be renamed the Māori Women's All Blacks.
Touch rugby is the main sport participated in by Māori. It is the top game played by Māori men, with one in three playing it, and the second-most commonly played sport for Māori women, after netball. The National Māori Touch Trust, formed in 1998 by Gerard Ngawati, hosts an annual Māori tournament at Hopuhopu, Ngāruawāhia. The trust has also organised a World Indigenous Touch tournament, first held in 2008. Māori Touch NZ hosted the tournament at Parrs Park in Waitākere City, attracting Samoan, Niuean, Cook Island, New Zealand Chinese, Pacific Unity and Japanese teams.
Mulholland, Malcolm. Beneath the Māori moon: an illustrated history of Māori rugby. Wellington: Huia, 2009.