Milestone day for Bay's best All Black

By Struan Purdie

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Eighty-three years ago today one of New Zealand's and Hawke's Bay's rugby greats hung up his jersey for the last time.

George Nepia was just 25 when he played his last game for the national side in 1930, as the All Blacks walked victorious from Athletic Park in Wellington having trounced the Lions 22-8 and in the process becoming arguably Hawke's Bay's most famous All Black.

New Zealand Rugby Union president and former All Black Ian MacRae has fond memories of Nepia as a referee in the 1970s.

"He was highly respected by everyone," he recalled.

"He had a great mana about him."

The Wairoa-born fullback shot to fame as a 19-year-old when he joined the 1924-5 All Blacks dubbed The Invincibles.

Although he was the youngest player on the tour, Nepia played all 32 games earning a reputation that remains today.

His legend was recently captured in an award-winning play that premiered during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

The play's creator, Hone Kouka, said a lot of Welsh fans still remembered Nepia even though eight decades had passed since he played in the United Kingdom.

Mr Kouka said it was the young fullback's courage and skill that made him so memorable.

"For such a young man he had great vision for the game," he said. "He was absolutely courageous."

This sentiment was echoed by Mr MacRae who said Nepia played his defensive position superbly.

"He tackled everything that moved and kicked the ball out," he said. "Back then the fullback was like the Rock of Gibraltar."

After finishing up with the All Blacks, Nepia went on to captain the New Zealand Maori team before the Great Depression drove him overseas to play league.

Nepia returned in 1937 where he was reinstated to union and continued to play regional rugby for the East Coast.

In 1950, now in his mid-40s, Nepia led the Olympians Club to victory against Poverty Bay, which was captained by his son George.

The game was the only instance where a father and son played in a first-class match in New Zealand. The ageing star then returned home to Wairoa where he took up a job as a farm manager and continued refereeing matches.

"He was everything to everyone when it came to rugby," said Mr MacRae, reflecting fondly on those days.

Nepia died in August 1986 and was survived by his two sons and daughter.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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