THE ALL BLACKS, New Zealand’s international rugby union team, borrow a Maori pre-combat ritual when stomping out their famous haka before each game. Their near-namesakes have a more direct claim. The Maori All Blacks, made up only of players who can prove their Maori descent, have a unique haka, “Timatanga” (beginnings). It tells of a…
THE ALL BLACKS, New Zealand’s international rugby union team, borrow a Maori pre-combat ritual when stomping out their famous haka before each game. Their near-namesakes have a more direct claim. The Maori All Blacks, made up only of players who can prove their Maori descent, have a unique haka, “Timatanga” (beginnings). It tells of a gathering of young warriors striving formatauranga(knowledge),taumatatanga(excellence) andwhanaunatanga(unity). The players may be defined by their differentiwi(tribal) affiliations in team profiles, but on the field of play,whanaunatangarules: the Maori All Blacks are oneiwi.
The team, currently preparing for the second of a pair of matches against Fiji scheduled for July 13th and 20th, is an enduring oddity. In late 2018, as the All Blacks recovered from a rare defeat in Ireland, the Maori were crushing Chile 73-0 in Santiago. Fiji, the ninth-ranked team in the world, proved too strong last Saturday, winning 27-10. But the Maori have had better days. They beat the touring British and Irish Lions side in 2005, and England and Ireland separately in 2010 in matches to mark the Maori team’s centenary. Only three major international sides—the All Blacks themselves, Wales and South Africa (known as the Springboks)—have never lost to the Maori.
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In general, international rugby teams are divided by nationality, not ethnicity. And even within New Zealand, despite historical and contemporary inequality—the Maori tend to do worse in school, suffer poorer health and die younger than Pakeha (white New Zealanders) do—the two groups have always rucked together. Numerous famous All Blacks have been Maori, from George Nepia, the star of the 1924 “Invincibles” team, to the likes of T.J. Perenara and Nehe Milner-Skudder more recently. Indeed, the main New Zealand side is often defined by a Maori identity that many New Zealanders feel ownership of, from the haka and the sleeve tattoos that adorn muscled forearms to an expansive, fast-paced style of play seen as distinctly Maori.
The Maori team was founded in 1910, in rugby union’s amateur age, as a lure to tempt Maori players away from the money on offer in professional rugby league in Australia. Today the side stands at the apex of a system of Maori rugby in which provincial,iwiand community teams are able to provide opportunities to talented Maori players, especially those in rural areas, who miss the conventional routes to rugby stardom offered by big-name schools and clubs.
According to Malcolm Mulholland of Massey University, a historian of the team: “In an age when Maori occupy the wrong end of social indices, having a collective that brings so much positivity to our people is vitally important for the morale of Maori.” For Mr Mulholland, the team has similarities to the Maori Battalion—the celebrated second-world-war military unit whose rugby team beat a South African side in the Egyptian desert in 1943. The battalion and its rugby team offered sources of Maori pride during post-war decades blighted by poverty, discrimination and the decline of Maori rural society and culture.
Yet Pakeha loyalty to Maori rugby ran only skin-deep at times. In 1921 a touring South African correspondent said the sight of “Europeans” cheering a “band of coloured men to defeat members of [their] own race was too much for Springboks”. Seven years later began the decades-long exclusion of Maori players from All Black tours to apartheid-era South Africa, New Zealand rugby’s greatest stain. Only in 1970 did Maori players first tour—as “honorary whites”. The Pakeha-dominated New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) offered the sop of tours to Britain, France and Australia to Maori players excluded from the South African tours. This lengthy, sordid affair not only tainted the Maori team, but also underlined the second-class status of Maori in New Zealand’s rugby hierarchy.
The Springboks’ few games against the Maori in New Zealand could also prove deeply controversial. In 1981 the Maori were denied victory in the final minute, while another confrontation raged outside the stadium between New Zealand’s riot police and anti-apartheid protesters, with “race traitor” taunts directed at Maori players and their supporters.
The wider “Maori Renaissance”, a process of political and cultural revival that has gathered pace since the 1970s, has reinvigorated the team. Today it is the sporting embodiment oftikanga Maori(the Maori way of doing things). Players have spoken of first grasping theirMaoritanga, or culture, as Maori All Blacks. Since 2006 they have had to prove Maori descent to be considered. This marks a change from a looser past, when Rarotongans, Samoans and Tongans, not to mention some decidedly pale-looking players, sometimes lined up alongside Maori.
The “Timatanga” haka, written in 2001 to distinguish the Maori team from the All Blacks, symbolises the new era. Indeed, cultural reinvigoration has led to, or at least coincided with, better performances on the pitch. From 1995, the team went on a run of 33 victories in 38 games. And with the Maori centenary in 2010 came signs that the NZRU was belatedly making amends for its earlier attitude as it made an official apology for the shabby historical collusion with apartheid.
While the demand from some quarters that a separate Maori side should compete at the Rugby World Cup has come to naught, the team’s name was changed from “New Zealand Maori” to “Maori All Blacks” to mark its status as representative of a nation. New Zealand’s rugby authorities now formally consider it to be one of a number of “high performance” teams—a pipeline for future All Blacks—and, separately, maintain a Maori Rugby Board to develop Maori rugby from the grassroots.
Yet in other ways, the promised new beginning of the “Timatanga” haka has staggered. Since 2010 the Maori All Blacks have played few fixtures, and those they have played have been mostly against inferior opponents. In their rare recent meetings with top-flight sides, the Maori have been convincingly defeated. The team seems increasingly adrift in the modern rugby era, when shorter tours by top-notch international teams deprive the Maori All Blacks of the robust opposition they have beaten in the past, and the New Zealand national team’s packed schedules keep the very best Maori players busy. (It is often impossible to play for both sides.)
Mr Mulholland suggests that the NZRU needs to value the Maori team more. With many second-tier international sides crying out for testing opposition, better use could be made of the Maori All Blacks. Fiji, notably, sees this month’s matches as valuable preparation for the World Cup, which kicks off in Japan in September. But, as Mr Mulholland writes, the Maori play a longer game: “From an era when Maori battled for survival as a people, through a period of assimilation, to a time when being Maori is something to be proud of, New Zealand Maori have ridden the waves of Maori discontent and jubilation.” Well into their second century, the team survives, an anomaly with a purpose and a status that stretches far beyond the field of play.