In 1823, while at Rugby School in England, the 17 year-old William Webb Ellis allegedly caught a football with his hands and ran with it. In doing this, so the story goes, he invented the game of rugby. There remains much speculation around this version of events, certainly not enough to prevent the Rugby World Cup to be named after Webb Ellis. Ellis eventually became an Anglican Clergyman, and whether he is the true inventor of rugby or not, the beautiful game he sparked continues to inspire and polarise communities around the world.
No other ardent rugby fan base around the world has suffered more indignity than the New Zealand Maori. When the All Blacks took the field to defend the Webb Ellis Cup on Saturday, approximately 35% of their side were made up of indigenous Polynesian players. Although the Maori only make up 15% of the population of New Zealand, their influence on the sport is felt not only on the All Black team, but throughout the global rugby community. Their famous pre-match ritual, the Haka is a traditional ancestral war cry, originating from the Maori, who are native to the Polynesian Islands.
Thirteen years prior to Ellis inventing Rugby, a Maori named ‘Te Rauparaha’ of Ngati Toa is said to have composed the first Haka. Thirty years later, the British colonial power convinced Maori Chiefs to sign the Waitangi Treaty, which gave Maori rights as British subjects. Britain only found out about New Zealand in 1642, centuries after the Maori had settled the islands. British and Maori history is divided on exactly what was agreed to, but what is clear, is that British gained sovereignty, and the Maori are still fighting for clarity on their rights and role.
For over a century, joy for the game of rugby by the British and the Maori has masked deep social injustices inside and outside the sport. As far back as the 1860s, Maori tribes who aligned themselves with the British Crown enjoyed a camaraderie through passion for the game. Known by a single name, Wirihana, is the first Maori Rugby player on record who played against Wanganui Town in 1872.
Before the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was formed in 1892, Thomas Eyton saw an opportunity to exploit what was termed the native ‘coffee-coloured team’. He had served as armed constabulary before joining the civil service, and was visiting Britain for the 1887 Queen Victoria Golden Jubilee. He believed he could make money by bringing native players to Britain for entertainment purposes. He organised a private tour, inspired by the 1868 Australian Aborigine tour, which was successfully paraded across Britain in 47 matches.
Although profitable, the excitement Eyton hoped for was muted by many variables, but primarily because the natives were not as dark as was marketed, and played a far more disciplined style than the primitive one the empire was hoping to welcome, and ultimately show their superior form against.
During the 1888 UK tour, the native team (along with four others who were not Maori, but born there) first performed the Haka before a match against Surrey. They were originally meant to perform in their traditional native attire, but the idea was discarded. In the 170 years, or so, since the Maori performed the first Haka, the culture has not only been exploited by rugby, but silently woven into the New Zealand social narrative of unity and cohesion, in order pacify the Maori in and outside the game. The hope was that cultural appropriation would cover issues such as Maori unemployment, which has historically been much higher than New Zealanders of European descent.
This goal of silencing New Zealand’s minority community may have worked, if it weren’t for the apartheid government which banned the Maori from touring South Africa. The first test series between South Africa and New Zealand was in 1921, when South African players turned their backs on the All Blacks while they performed the Haka. Then, a South African correspondent wrote how they were “disgusted” by thousands of whites cheering “colored men to defeat members of their own race”. As early as 1919, politicians from South Africa were clear that native New Zealanders weren’t allowed in South Africa. Early efforts by New Zealand politicians were thwarted, and the All Black Tours in 1928, 1949 and 1960 were without Maori players.
This clearly infuriated whites and Maori, in New Zealand, as well the broader Pacific Islands community. In 1959, New Zealanders nationwide opposition to racist tours. The CABTA All Black Tour Association was formed, which ran a focused campaign with the messaging, “No Maoris, no Tour”. Around 160,000 New Zealanders signed the petition. Other protest groups were formed, and joined in solidarity with global bodies, but the sport’s political powers were determined to continue.
In 1970, as political pressure mounted, South Africa eventually relented, but only allowed Maori players into the country as “Honorary Whites”. At the time, Prime Minister John Vorster made the honorary white conditions very clear by stating that there should not be too many Maoris in the All Black team, that controversy should not accompany their selection and tour of South Africa, and that the colour of the Maori players should not be “too black”.
By 1981, the international rugby community was fed up South Africa’s racist policies, but New Zealand’s political zest defied logic, and allowed South Africa to tour, which caused chaos all around the All Black stadiums. This was the closest the New Zealand had ever come to civil war, and politicians admitted, in retrospect, that it was a bad idea.
The Maori continue to face what many sociologist call “micro aggression” by being teased for speaking as well as whites, and all the other offensive things that comes with being measured to the colonial standards that most native communities face. In a paper titled, “Speaking the Unspoken: Racism, Sport and Maori” published at the University of Waikato, the authors interviewed Maori Rugby players, administrators and those in and around the sport and were able to demonstrate the marginalisation that the Maori faced. They laid bare the myth that New Zealand was a non-racist society. Because the majority of the country is white, and equality has been allowed to exist for so long, getting responses and healthy dialogue on equality was a challenge. The paper highlights an excerpt from a Pa?keha? (New Zealander from European descent) award winning Sports columnist Richard Boock:
“It remains the dirty little secret of New Zealand rugby. Racist British and European football fans tend to yell and chant their warped abuse at the ground on game day; Aussies favour hurling obscenities and/or missiles. Over here it’s whispered among friends and behind backs, and rationalised into a language that attempts to deodorise the stench of the core message: that it’s OK to judge folk on the basis of race.” (Boock 2008, paras. 11-12).
The New Zealand Rugby Union finally apologised for the decades of exclusion in the South African tours, but only in a media release, failing to acknowledge the extraordinary pain caused to the Maori community. The hurt and sadness in the Maori continues to be masked by the success of those who do break through, and one research respondent summed it up best: “I’ve always felt there’s been quite severe racist policies in sport. I think what actually hides it all is the high number of Maoris that do play it, who do overcome all of that rubbish…”
As the Maori took the field along with their Pa?keha?E and Pacific Islanders to compete for the Webb Ellis Cup, they represented an evolving global voice that is growing louder daily; that “coffee-coloured” voices mattered, and that the injustices must be put in the center of the field with the same aggression as the Haka, and burst through the silence. This affirmed the belief that “Coffee-Coloured” people around the world were simply no longer satisfied with being honorary white, which may mean forgetting your own culture, and assimilating quietly and respectfully into western culture, irrespective of the deficit position you find yourself in. DM
Timothy Maurice Webster is the author of three brand leadership books and columnist who consults & speaks at the intersection of three key leadership pillars; Values formation, Style Manifestation and Brand Position. Timothy’s background in branding, design and psychology is inspired by his graduate studies at the Image Institute and his undergraduate work at Brookstone College in the United States.