sports gazette

Maori All Blacks: Who They Are and Why They Matter

Published: 18 Nov 2016

The Maori All Blacks have an impressive record against both club and international teams, which was extended in a 26-10 victory over Harlequins in their 150th anniversary year. Sports Gazette spoke to Maori players and coaches at Twickenham Stoop to learn why they are so special.

New Zealand is defined by its rugby. From the haka to the all-black strip, this country has rugby running in its roots.

Everyone knows about the All Blacks’ success (bar shortcomings in Chicago) but there is a vital cog in the New Zealand wheel: the Maori All Blacks.

Tana Umaga, assistant coach of the Maori All Blacks and former All Blacks captain, told the Sports Gazette:

“For these guys they’re representing their culture as well, the indigenous people of our country and it’s a really proud culture that is steeped in history.

“The Maori All Blacks have been around for a long time and so a lot of them, when they come here, the thing that binds them is their culture.”

The Maori All Blacks were formed in 1888 to represent the indigenous people of Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand.

Their origins are traced to eastern Polynesia and became known as persevering adventurers when they journeyed to New Zealand in waka canoes.

The Maoris’ first rugby tour, comprised of over 100 matches from 1888 to 1889, went to Europe. Their first win: 13-4 against Ireland, but their first loss, against Wales, came soon after. But this did not spoil a fruitful first tour with 78 ins, 6 draws and 23 losses.

Becoming official in 1910, the Maoris’ genealogy rule was enforced. All players had to have Maori genealogy to play in the side.

Today, the Maoris are a second team to the All Blacks so suffer from irregular squads from one year to another as players are called up.

Umaga admires the resilience of the players in the squad, saying: “A few players have gone on a few tours before, this is how it is and we’ve got a good group of core leaders in the group who let the players know what it’s like and what is expected of them.”

The players get the opportunity to learn about their Maori heritage whilst with the team.

“A lot of them are not full Maori but they get to learn a lot about what it means to be Maori, where they’re from you know, with the help of our Kaumatua Luke Crawford so they can trace their lineage back and get a deeper understanding,” Umaga said.

“They’re not only enlightened by the rugby side of it; they’re enlightened culturally and obviously for myself, being the first time, it’s great to see that.

“Players do a bit more searching about who they represent. I think that’s the major thing – it’s the people that they’re representing, they’re very proud to do that.”

For these guys they’re representing their culture as well, the indigenous people of our country and it’s a really proud culture that is steeped in history.

The Maoris have suffered some troubling times in their history, especially in 1970s South Africa when all Maori players were banned from the New Zealand squad on tour.

Before this, in 1956, Maoris lost 37-0 to South Africa in their biggest lost to date. Rumours are they were told to lose by Ernest Corbett, Minister of Maori Affairs, “for the future of rugby”.

The history provides a factor behind which the Maori players can unite and it is clear for everyone to see, especially head coach Colin Cooper. 

It’s the camaraderie and the way we use our culture to bring our team together,” Cooper told Sports Gazette.

“We’ve just come out of a super competition that goes from February right through to July. We also did a provincial competition that finished the day before we left.

“I was really proud of the guys and what really makes them work hard and play together as a team is our culture.”

Maoris turned professional in 1994. Since then, they have beaten several international teams including England, Argentina, Fiji and a special victory against the Lions in 2005.

They were officially called the Maori All Blacks in 2012, the latest move in a Maori renaissance which is encompassed by the Maori’s haka.

They perform the timatanga haka, a song about the evolution of life from New Zealand’s four winds as well as looking to the future.

This is different to the ka mate and kapa o pango hakas performed by the All Blacks. Another subtle different that moulds the Maori identity.

James Lowe, man of the match against Harlequins, has links to the Ngapuhi and Ngai Te Rangi tribes and has played for Maoris since 2014.

Lowe told Sports Gazette: “There’s a deep connection to where you’re from and understanding that you’re not just playing for yourself but the people at home.

“With the tragedies at home with the earthquakes still rumbling on, it was emotional. That was the reason for the silence at the start of the haka.”

Wherever the Maoris are, they take the spirit of their home with them. They have been telling their story for nearly 120 years and it’s a delight to listen to it.

Lowe summarises what the Maoris are all about: “Our connection to our people is something we try to promote and it’s something that the Maori All Blacks do very well.”

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