How the Maoris Influenced New Zealand Sport

Recently a leading sports historian commented that the New Zealand Rugby Team would not as be as feared or powerful today had it not been for the influence of the Maori peoples. And this comment has been endorsed by Ron Palenski who is the director of the New Zealand Hall of Fame, who said that the Maori have had an enormous influence on the development of rugby in New Zealand. Palenski went further when he continued by saying, that the national game would not have been adopted in the country if it had not been for the participation of the Maori.

The Early Days

New Zealand Rugby Team first toured in 1884 when they went to Australia, and Joe Warbrick from Rotorua was an integral part of the squad. Four years later it was Warbrick that organized a massive tour to Great Britain and Australia. The tour took a year to complete and Warbrick who was captain was joined by four of his brothers. Also, on the same tour was Tom Ellison from Otakao, who went on to be one of New Zealand’s greatest ever rugby innovators.

The Black Shirts

It was Tom Ellison who convinced the Football Union to adopt the famous black jerseys adorned with a silver fern. The strip first had white shorts, but these were changed to black in 1901 and the team adopted the nickname the All Blacks in 1905. And there is a school of thought that members of his close family persuaded Ellison that the silver fern was the ideal emblem to wear on the shirt. In Maori proverbs the silver fern represents when a warrior dies another arises.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Billy Stead

Billy Stead was vice captain of the 1905 tour, and was commonly recognized as the biggest influence on the squad. He then went on to co-write The Complete Rugby Footballer, which became one of the most influential books on rugby union that has ever been written. Stead went on to captain the All Blacks in 1908 against the Anglo-Welsh touring team. And in 1910 Stead captained the first ever New Zealand Maori team to tour Australia. Later he became a coach and was the first ever Maori to coach the All Blacks when they toured South Africa in 1921.

George Nepia

These three players, Warbrick, Stead, and Ellison were the real trailblazers of Maori influence on New Zealand rugby. But it was George Nepia that really became New Zealand’s first ever rugby superstar. He was part of the Invincible’s tour of 1925 against Britain, Ireland and France and unbelievably played all of the thirty-two tour games, all at the age of twenty. He was also responsible for leading the team haka before every game. Nepia is still regarded as one of the greatest ever full backs to play for New Zealand.

These great Maori players helped to make New Zealand rugby what it is today. It cannot be underestimated just how important they were in not just the playing of the game, but by instilling New Zealand culture into rugby and taking it around the world.

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