Maori Personalities in Sport
When walking through the bush or along a track it is wise occasionally to look back, to see where you have been as well as see where you are going. Nowadays, the future of the Maori in sport seems assured, with concentration on tennis and golf noticeable in recent years and, of course, Rugby football owing much of its success to the feats of Maoris. Yes, the road ahead for the Maori in sport seems clear, but it is worthwhile to look back — to see where the Maori has been.
This year the New Zealand Rugby Union will be sending a team of footballers to Great Britain and Ireland and hopes are held that Maori players will again be among the stars, just as they were in 1924, when two of the best players in Cliff Porter's “Unbeatables” were Maoris—George Nepia and Jimmy Mill.
But Maoris and Rugby football went together long before Cliff Porter took his men on that great football journey. The very history of football in New Zealand is bound up with great Maori players, a fact known and appreciated by those in control of the sport.
The first international Rugby team to tour Great Britain was the New Zealand Maori team of 1888–89, captained by Joe Warbrick. There were five Warbricks in the team and three Wynyards—two sets of brothers supplying eight players!
It was my privilege, about 15 years ago, to meet and talk to Dick Taiaroa, a survivor of that great band of 26 players—a band which played 107 matches, on a tour lasting from June 23, 1888, to August 24, 1889!
Of the 26 players to make that crusading tour of Great Britain and Ireland, with Australia and New Zealand thrown in for good measure, only four pakehas were included, and it is a tribute to the Maori of nearly 70 years ago that such a high standard of play was shown overseas.
The Daily Mail (London) in ‘52 Years of Sport,’ paid this tribute to Joe Warbrick's men:
‘… It may be recalled as proof of their toughness that in the course of their visit (to the U.K.) they played no fewer than 74 matches, winning 49, losing 20, and drawing five. In international matches they defeated Ireland, at Dublin, by four goals and one try to one goal and one try, but were beaten by Wales, at Swansea—one goal and two tries to nil—and by England, at Blackheath—one goal and four tries to nil. The England three-quarter line included those two notably versatile athletes, A. E. Stoddart, the famous cricketer, and J. W. Sutcliffe, who, in addition to representing his country under Rugby rules, was England's Association football goal-keeper in five international matches.’
Much of the glory of Maori football has been seen in Hawke's Bay, but as a young fellow in Gisborne I have happy recollections of seeing outstanding Maori footballers in Poverty Bay. One such man was A. P. Kaipara—in the opinion of S. S. Dean, noted Rugby administrator—one of the greatest five-eighths New Zealand has produced. He lost his life on Gallipoli, but for three successive years he had been in the North Island team. Then there were Dr Wi Repa and Jimmy Mill. Over a period of nearly thirty years New Zealand has yet to produce a half-back to equal the ability shown by Jimmy Mill, who wore the All Black jersey in 33 matches. Jimmy Mill, the master of blind-side movements, was a ‘great’ among great players, and his death on March 29, 1950, robbed New Zealand of a wonderful footballer—a Maori star.
Jimmy Mill was one of the three Maori players in the 1924 All Blacks, the others being George Nepia and Lui Paewai, uncle of ‘Doc’ Paewai. ‘Doc’ has been acclaimed as the greatest half-back New Zealand has ever produced not to wear an All Black jersey! Yes, Dr M. N. Paewai is so known — a player who deserved to be first choice as New Zealand half-back, but who missed out all along the way. A grand little sportsman, too.
But a little about the legendary George Nepia. George Nepia, the world's greatest full-back, in the opinion of Englishmen and New Zealanders, was originally a five-eighth, and it was a stroke of genius on the part of Tom Parata and Norman McKenzie that saw Nepia transferred to the full-back position in one of the trial matches in 1924.
Thus came about, almost accidentally, the start of an amazing career. George Nepia, at 19 years, played in all of the 30 matches on the 1924–25 tour, scoring 70 points. New Zealand took only one full-back on that tour—a full-back who had not played more than the odd game in that position, but long after the tour, Denzil Batchelor, an English journalist, was moved to write a grand story about that 19-year-old player in his book, Days Without Sunset. I'd like every young New Zealander — Maori and pakeha alike—to read that chapter. It's a sporting classic.
Might I quote just a few sentences?
The chapter is titled ‘The Unfading Fern’.
‘… Alone among the whole side he (Nepia) played in all thirty. If Mark Nicholls failed, there were others to improvise fresh attacks—if Nepia failed, the castle was taken, the side was beaten.
‘How had the boy Nepia the finely tempered nerves to stand the strain of appearing as a target for the day in match after match; of beating off, single-handed, the ravening packs and the three-quarter lines in full cry, with his own single pair of whipcord arms? He was between short and tall, and his thighs were like young trunks. His head was fit for the prow of a Viking Longship, with its passionless, sculped bronze features and the plume of blue-black hair.
‘Behind the game he slunk from side to side like a panther on the prowl; but not like the panther behind bars—like a lord of the jungle
on the prowl for a kill. That was his concept of his function. When the ball came to him, rollicking first this way then that, a few yards ahead of a bunched pack of blood-thirsty forwards, he rejoiced in the challenge.
‘A lesser man might win applause by a flykick, or even by going down like the Boy on the Burning Deck, whelmed by destiny in disaster and immortality. Not so George Nepia. He leapt at the ball like an art critic snatching at a fault of technique by his best friend. He went to work backwards, a fury of shoulders, elbows and thighs, storming through the massed ranks of the opposing pack.
‘Eight to one against were the odds that exactly suited him. His tackling, which resembled a woodman felling a Californian pine, had a mere heartless efficiency. But bullocking through a pack with its blood up and no-one between himself and the line — that was enough to bring a flicker of a smile to the Maori war-mask of his face.
‘His long, low-angled kicking, especially of a heavy ball, was a miracle of accuracy and length. His punts raked the touch lines. A third of the length of the field was the average he liked to maintain, and if the ball dropped more than a yard or two over the touchline, his eyelids would narrow in scornful self-criticism.
‘I suppose from time to time he proved that he was not superhuman by failing to find touch, but who can cross his heart and swear to recalling such an occasion?
‘…It is not with me a question of whether Nepia was the best full-back in history. It is a question as to which of the others is fit to loose the laces of his Cotton Oxford boots.’
That brief extract from Days Without Sunset was not written by a parochial New Zealand sports writer; it was written by a cold-blooded, analytical English writer, and written nearly 25 years after George Nepia had made football history in England. His memory was still fresh, his fame just as enduring after a quarter-century.
Yes, it may be said with truth, that the record of the Maori in football has been outstanding.
I wish I could say the same about the record of the Maori in track and field athletics. Just why there has not been a greater share of success—due, perhaps, to the lack of numbers competing—might be overcome one of these days, because I am honest in my conviction that New Zealand's first male field-event champion at an Olympic festival could be a Maori—if he concentrated on the hop-step-and-jump.
Here is an event in which rhythm and timing play a most important part, two essentials which Maori sportsmen and dancers seem to inherit. Years ago, right up the East Coast of the North Island, I saw a Maori in bare feet equal the New Zealand record at the hop-step-and-jump, but he was far from an amateur club, and regular competition, and nothing more was heard of him.
Surely there must be a few of the younger brigade, eager to represent New Zealand at the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, who could be persuaded to take on field events? I'm sure they would get all the help they needed—by correspondence, due to locality—from that excellent coach Jim Bellwood, coach to our woman Olympic champion, Yvette Williams.
Years ago—back in 1896—New Zealand's best pole vaulters were two Maori athletes, Jimmy Te Paa and Hori Eruera. They held the New Zealand title between them for three years, Hori winning the Australasian championship in 1897, and Jimmy taking it two years later.
In swimming, Bill Whareaitu represented New Zealand at the British Empire Games held in London in 1934. He was New Zealand's best at the back-stroke, and a year or two later young Nawi Kira, of the Bay of Plenty, was New Zealand's best girl swimmer.
Ike Robin, giant among big wrestlers, was New Zealand wrestling champion — and a worthy representative of the Maori race, too—before the ancient sport introduced a touch of vaudeville, or showmanship. He wrestled world champion Stanislaus Zbysko to a draw in a match at Auckland about 30 years ago. But, before Robin's time, another Maori, Moana Paratene, who also played a good game of football, was New Zealand's best wrestler.
At boxing—and I'm pleased at this—only one Maori has earned international fame. His name was Herbert Slade, and he went to America 70 years ago to fight the great John L. Sullivan, world champion.
Boxing is one sport the Maori athlete might well afford to leave alone. It has a punishing effect on the mentality, and the more finely-balanced the intellect the greater the risk of permanent mental damage. Unusual words from a sportswriter? Yes, but written honestly by one who has long admired the Maori athlete, and who wants to see him steer clear of unnecessary dangers associated with sport.
My ambition is to see a Maori Olympic champion, a true representative of New Zealand, crowned at the Olympic Games in Melbourne. Time is short—but this can be done!
Kia Whaka Ngawari Au Ia Hau!