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Rugby World Cup: All Blacks, New Zealand Maori and the politics of the pitch

New Zealand’s 28th Maori Battalion performing a Haka in Egypt in 1941. AAP Image/Alexander Turnbull Library

RUGBY WORLD CUP – In the first of The Conversation’s series on the Rugby World Cup, Massey University’s Malcolm Mulholland argues for the continuation of a Maori only rugby team.

Around half of the All Blacks team that will open the 2011 Rugby World Cup at Auckland’s Eden Park stadium this Friday will be players of Maori or Pacific Island backgrounds.

Much like the French soccer World Cup winning team of 1998, largely composed of players of African and Arab descent, the make up of the All Blacks does not correspond with the demographics of the country.

While this ethnic disparity has sparked debate about the need for quotas in France, New Zealand has long taken a different approach.

There are two nationwide institutions that engender a great sense of mana (or pride) amongst Maori. They both do so because of their global reputation – the 28th Maori Battalion and the New Zealand Maori Men’s Rugby Team.

They have both gained notoriety for being particularly skilled within the environment in which they operate and their conquests have become the stuff of legend within the communities which they represent.

German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel said of the 28th Maori Battalion: “give me a division of Maoris and I will conquer the world”.

The prowess and respect given towards Maori fighting in the fields of the Middle East can be found on the rugby fields of France. Former NZ Maori Captain Wattie Barclay said during the epic 1926/27 Tour that he led “…the French learned from our tour, and quickly adapted our style of game…”

The New Zealand Maori rugby team perform a Haka before a match against England. AAP/John Cowpland

The New Zealand Maori Men’s Rugby Team has gained a reputation as being one of the more difficult, non full-international sides to defeat.

Over a hundred year history NZ Maori has faced every major rugby union playing nation and has enjoyed many successes.

Their unique style of expansive, non-patterned, unpredictable play has endeared the team to many fans across the globe.

NZ Maori have remained the entertainers of the game and they continue to be a great advertisement as to why people should follow the sport of rugby union.

Why a dedicated Maori team?

The rationale behind the establishment of a team consisting solely of Maori in 1910 was due to the threat of Maori players leaving the then amateur sport to the code of professionalism in rugby league.

Ned Parata, the founding father of NZ Maori, petitioned the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) over several years. He finally succeeded following a Maori rugby league tour of Australia in 1908.

Yet this reason for the team existing would be replaced in just over a decade with the advent of rugby sporting contact with South Africa.

“Honorary whites”

As early as 1919, South African politicians and rugby administrators made it known to New Zealand authorities that they would not allow Maori to set foot in South Africa.

This would affect successive All Black Tours to their country in 1928, 1949 and 1960.

Only in 1970 would the Maori be allowed to visit the republic. This occurred only after they were officially labelled as “Honorary Whites”.

Three conditions were set by the South African Prime Minister John Vorster; that there should not be too many, that no controversy should accompany their dispatch, and that the colour of the players should not be “too black”.

It wouldn’t be until 1976 when Maori players toured South Africa without requiring any special dispensation.

The case against

When NZ Maori played the British Lions in 1971, a controversial article was written by former NZ Maori and All Black player, Doc Paewai.

In the piece he provided reasons why the NZ Maori Team should be abandoned. He argued firstly, that Maori players can play for two national teams, whereas Pakeha (non-Maori) can only play for one. Secondly, that Maori could now be included to tours to South Africa.

Ever since Maori rugby players have been allowed to tour the republic, many have agreed with the sentiments expressed by Paewai.

Some have gone an extra step and have stated the NZ Maori Team is in fact an example of apartheid.

Former South African president, Nelson Mandela poses with the Webb Ellis cup after the 2007 Rugby world cup. AFP/Gianluigi Guercia

A separate Maori team is not reverse apartheid

The apartheid argument is easily dispelled – if it were the case, then NZ Maori would replace the All Blacks as New Zealand’s top national side and thus only Maori would represent their country. This is not the case and the racial power inequality in New Zealand means Maori are seen as the minority, not in a position to exert laws that suppress another race as in the apartheid system.

Suggestions of “apartheid”, “preferential treatment” and “separatism” remain the most prominent arguments for disbanding NZ Maori and they resurface often.

The team is subjected to New Zealand’s racist underbelly who cannot appreciate that the team is an example of positive affirmation rather than some skewered attempt to be racially superior.

Apart from being positive examples for Maori, who suffer from some of the most horrendous socio-economic statistics, they also provide another pathway forward for promising Maori players.

Many players have gained the attention of the national selectors through their exploits and subsequent profiles when playing for NZ Maori.

Another reason for the team to exist is that they remain an example of positive development that can occur within a Treaty of Waitangi model.

It is important to remember the team began as an attempt to stop the flow of Maori rugby players to rugby league and as a method of keeping Maori player protest muted when it came to not being selected to tour South Africa.

Maori dancers perform during a welcoming ceremony for the All Blacks before the Rugby World Cup. AFP Photo/Francois Xavier Marit

The political importance of NZ Maori

In fact, the NZRU is unintentionally giving a voice to New Zealand’s founding document - the Treaty of Waitangi.

Of course, it could be argued that given that the body responsible within the NZRU for developing Maori rugby is advisory only in capacity and that the NZRU is not committed to promoting the team for the inclusion in the Rugby World Cup competition, the NZRU falls short of the mark when it comes to implementing a Treaty of Waitangi model.

Yet given that the team does exist and that it enjoys a national and international profile, one could say that in its most basic form the NZRU are providing some fulfilment to the Treaty of Waitangi.

This is exceptionally strange in New Zealand as the Treaty was signed between the British Crown (which is now seen as having its authority delegated to the New Zealand Government) and Maori, not the NZRU and Maori.

Even despite the team existing due to a set of circumstances whereby Maori political authority was not a consideration, the NZ Maori could be seen as an example of what could exist if other bodies promoted national Maori entities that went on to enjoy a global presence.

The last and perhaps most potent reason for the NZRU remaining committed to the NZ Maori Team existing is due to the backlash that they might expect to receive if they chose to disperse with the side.

In 2009, the NZRU announced that NZ Maori would not assemble due to the world wide recession and the consequential impact that had on administering the game within New Zealand.

The move brought widespread condemnation and much bad press. One could reasonably assume that given the now centennial history of the team, the NZRU would not entertain terminating NZ Maori.

The case to continue NZ Maori

As history has shown, there are tensions around having a side that is composed only of Maori.

Yet those who entertain such apprehension as reasons to dissolve the team fail to appreciate the rich heritage of the side and all that it has provided the world of rugby.

There are significant reasons why a team based on race should exist, including the sad saga of rugby contact with South Africa, that the comparisons with apartheid South Africa do not allow for any appreciation of racial power inequality, that the team provides a positive pathway forward for players and a reprieve for Maori from a reality that sees them dominate negative statistics, the NZRU are providing leadership when it comes to applying a Treaty of Waitangi model by a non-Government entity, and any move to disperse the team would result in widespread disapproval.

May NZ Maori continue to exist for another hundred years.

This is the first part of our Rugby World Cup series. To read the other parts, follow these links:

- Part one: Rugby World Cup: All Blacks, New Zealand Maori and the politics of the pitch

- Part two: What will the Rugby World Cup be worth to New Zealand?

- Part three: Art or science? Decision making in rugby

- Part four: Rugby World Cup: Are cheats prospering?

- Part five: Rugby World Cup: The Australian situation

- Part six: Selling the Rugby World Cup

- Part seven: Rugby World Cup injuries: That’s gotta hurt

- Part eight: Rugby World Cup a lottery amid refereeing chaos

- Part nine: All Blacks’ proud tradition of the haka insulted in Rugby World Cup

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