In the wellington Sports Post on July 4 there appeared a series of pictures showing Kahu Ropata, ‘Wellington's ace Rugby League goal-kicker’, in action, and suggesting that he was New Zealand's best kicker in any code. High praise indeed for the young Maori player, when such men as Bob Scott, veteran All Black, and Des White, record-maker Rugby League representative, are taken into consideration.
But Maoris have long had a reputation at football, not the least being at the art of kicking goals. George Nepia, of course, needs no extolling, but less is known of Jack Hemi, who played his first Rugby representative game at 15 years—when he represented Wairarapa as full-back. It is on record that Hemi, who was also an excellent hop-step-and-jumper, had to get permission from his schoolmaster at Masterton before he could travel to Auckland with the Wairarapa team.
In 1935 Hemi figured in the trial matches to find players for the All Black tour of Great Britain and Ireland, and though he scored 17 points in two matches, he was unable to gain selection. The only New Zealand Maori representative player to be selected for the 1935 All Blacks was Tori Reid, whose record at football will be referred to later in this article.
Though he missed selection in the 1935 All Blacks, Jack Hemi gained a place in the New Zealand Maori team taken to Australia under the captaincy of George Nepia the same year, and it was there that he kicked one goal from his own side of half-way to make the Australians sit up in astonishment, for Hemi was not a big man physically. Later Hemi turned to Rugby League. He went to England with the New Zealand League team in 1939, the team playing two games, both of which were won, before World War Two started and the tour was abandoned. A few years back he made a reappearance at Wellington's Basin Reserve against an English team, and showed that the passing years had made but a slight impression on his form. Mark Jack Hemi down among the Maori giants in football!
Might I digress at this point? I am not Maori, but I was born at Gisborne and lived in the shadow of that great statesman, Sir James Carroll. I saw the legendary A. P. Kaipara play, saw Pare Tureia, Tom Dennis, Jack Hall, Jimmy Mill (of blessed memory for grand games), Sam Gemmel, Peter Kaua, Jimmy and Bill Lockwood, George Nepia, and Moana Paratene, among other stars of the oval ball, in action. I have long admired the Maori in sport, and look forward to the day when there is even greater representation for the Maori in New Zealand representative teams.
Fitness, allied to outstanding play, gave Alma and H. W. (“Mick”) Kenny, such fine records in Rugby football.
Alma Kenny, a forward, played in Wellington Rugby Union representative teams from 1930 to 1941 continuously—12 seasons in a row —and again in 1946, and he was in the New Zealand Maori team to tour Fiji in 1938. Younger brother H. W. (“Mick”) Kenny, was a full-back—and a grand one, too.
Badly wounded in the Middle East battles during World War Two, it was a miracle that Mick ever played football again, but he won Wellington representative honours in 1937, 1940, 1946, 1947 and 1948. Like Alma, he, too, was a New Zealand Maori representative. Sport was traditional—and is still carried on—in the Kenny family.
Father of Alma and Mick was Ted Kenny, an outstanding competitor at rowing, in which sport he gained the coveted “Red Coat,” or New Zealand championship blazer. Ted Kenny was a son of Captain Kenny, M.L.C., and it would have done his heart good to see two of his grand-daughters, Alice and Janie, on the
hockey field. Daughters of Merv. Kenny, yet another of the sporting family, these two players have won the admiration and respect of capable judges of hockey. Mrs Ina Lamason, Wellington selector and New Zealand representative at hockey and cricket, tells me that Janie, now about 14 years, is likely to develop into one of New Zealand's greatest hockey players.
Luxford Peti, one-time sports enthusiast, of Dannevirke, who did so much for the Maoris in women's hockey at a time when Ruahine held supremacy in that sport, would be thrilled to know of the progress being made by the young Maori women.
Janie, who played senior for Wellington's Toa team, had to transfer to Wellington Technical College in the Secondary Schools' grade, but her average of about six goals a match indicates that she is far too good for that grade.
Elder sister, Alice, would have made the Wellington — and perhaps New Zealand — team last year had it not been for injuring the cartilage of a knee. This put her out of action and at her own request she was not considered for the Wellington team to play in the K Cup tournament, a tournament lasting a whole week. Instead, she played for the Wellington Seconds and was the star player.
‘You can't go wrong in forecasting great things for these two splendid hockey players', was Ina Lamason's assurance to me.
From the foregoing it is evident that sport in the Kenny family is traditional or inherent. And so it has been with many a Maori family. Look through the list of Maori Rugby representatives and you will find the Gemmells (with Jack and the evergreen Sam as the stalwarts), the Graces, the Lockwoods, Macdonalds, Warbricks, Ellisons, Wynyards, Paratas, Tureias and Winiatas — great names in New Zealand and Maori sport.
But the name of Asher doesn't appear in that list of New Zealand Maori Rugby representatives because, perhaps, the greatest player New Zealand ever produced, Albert (“Opai”) Asher, who played for New Zealand in 1903, turned to Rugby League before the first official “New Zealand Maori” team was chosen in 1910. (The great team of 1888–89 was officially known as the ‘N.Z. Native Team.’)
Albert Asher was only 11 years old when he played his first senior Rugby representative game, playing for Tauranga against Rotorua. Eighteen months later, still under 13 years, he played against Auckland—the youngest senior representative on record. I am indebted to R. A. Stone's ‘Rugby Players Who Have Made N.Z. Famous’ for some of the details about ‘Opai’ Asher. He tells that ‘Opai’ Asher played many brilliant games for Auckland, but none better than in 1902, when Auckland was awarded the Ranfurly Shield, to become first holders of that ‘Log of Wood’ for which many Maori players have battled in winning and losing teams.
They used to call ‘Opai’ Asher the ‘India. Rubber Man’ and not without good reason. It was in 1903 that Australians saw him at his best. ‘Thrilled were the crowds by the Maoriland wonder who, when picked up and dumped, appeared to bounce, and was the next moment making for the goal line, with a running action entirely his own,’ wrote R. A. Stone.
‘When White, the N.S.W. three-quarter, collared Asher in the 1903 match; Asher fell to the ground. White turned to take up his position again and when next he looked was astounded to see Opai running over the goalline. Opai had jumped, or rather bounced, up and was off to the desired haven.’
Asher scored 17 tries on that tour, playing in 10 matches.
In 1904, Bedell-Sivright captained the British team to New Zealand, the team playing a series of wins in Australia before coming to New Zealand. Flushed with success, they were warned that they didn't know what footballers were until they had seen ‘Opai’ Asher. But ‘Opai’ didn't get in the New Zealand team — and Sivright was said to have exclaimed: ‘What sort of players have you if Asher can't get selection?’
But there was good reason for his non-selection. Working with the fire brigade, he had suffered a leg injury. He insisted on playing for Auckland in the Ranfurly Shield match won by Wellington, 6–3, but his old-time speed and trickery were missing. They took him to hospital for a more thorough medical check, and there they found that a splinter of glass had been lodged behind his knee. That piece of glass kept Albert Asher from almost certain selection in the 1905 All Black team to Great Britain. He played his last Rugby Union match in 1907, and then transferred to Rugby League.
The first New Zealand Maori Rugby League team to play in Australia, says a Rugby League publication,’ was organised by prominent Maori footballers and assisted to a great degree by “Opai” and Ernie Asher.’
The Maori team of 1909 created a sensation, winning the O. T. Punch Cup by wins in the first three of five matches between the Maoris and the ‘Kangaroos’. The third match was seen by 45,000 people, and it was after this match that ‘Opai’ Asher (Albert Wharepapa) jumped the fence at the Sydney Cricket Ground to take the cup! His brother Ernie (Pouwhiuwhiu) was also in the team.
A great player, ‘Opai’ Asher was later, and for many years, custodian of Carlaw Park, the
home of Rugby League in Auckland.
And now for a little, in conclusion, about another great Maori footballer — Tori Reid.
It was in the ‘Rugby Almanack of New Zealand’, 1950, that a great tribute was paid to this great forward, who was born at Tokomaru Bay in September, 1912. In part, this was written: ‘An amazing match appearance record was completed by S. T. Reid (East Coast, Hawke's Bay. New Zealand Maori Team and New Zealand) during the season, when he took into his keeping all records associated with the game in the matter of appearance in first-class contests.
‘During the New Zealand Maori tour of Australia, Tori Reid beat Sam Gemmell's record of 144 matches for all games when he appeared against Australia at Brisbane on June 11, and on his return to New Zealand his game for Hawke's Bay against Wellington on September 3 broke the record for most first-class matches in New Zealand — 122, held previously by J. C. Stringfellow.
‘Tori Reid entered the first-class arena in 1929, for East Coast aaginst Waikato, at the age of 16 years; twenty years later he was still in the top flight as a forward.’
To the end of the 1949 season, this great Maori forward had played in 157 representative matches—including 27 for New Zealand and 14 for New Zealand Maori teams.
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