Ex-All Black 'pleased' by Maori rugby's longevity

By Michael Dickison

Waka Nathan said he was not bothered by the decision to exclude him from a South African tour. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Waka Nathan said he was not bothered by the decision to exclude him from a South African tour. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Former All Black Waka Nathan is not bothered he was left off a 1960 tour of South Africa because he was Maori, saying he is just pleased Maori rugby has reached 100 years.

The New Zealand Rugby Union has refused to apologise for excluding Maori in All Blacks tours of South Africa between 1928 and 1960, drawing criticism from Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples.

Mr Sharples said earlier this year that the union's refusal showed "gross arrogance of the rugby union towards the Maori people".

However, the union's Maori board chairman, Wayne Peters, said he had spoken to affected players and an apology had not been their wish.

Waka Nathan told nzherald.co.nz today that more than an apology, he had been more concerned there might not be a celebration at all because Maori rugby played no games last year.

"You know, really, I'm just so pleased that they're going to celebrate 100 years, which to me is tremendous," Nathan said.

While he was already part of the Maori team, Nathan had only been 19 or 20 years old in 1960 and was not sure he would have been picked for the All Blacks anyway.

However, there had been contempt at the time and it was important that the All Blacks brought together Maori and Pakeha, he said.

"I don't know if I would've made [the team] but there was sort of just contempt within New Zealand as far as that apartheid thing was, and that kept the pressure on the South Africans.

"The All Blacks - that's it. That's our country; that's New Zealand together, Maori and Pakeha. That's the way it should be."

The politics that surrounded the All Blacks had not been his concern as a player, Nathan said.

"People kicking up a fuss was part and parcel of the whole tour but it didn't bother me. I just wanted to win games."

Nathan said the tradition of a Maori rugby team was valuable as a goal for Maori children and he would be disappointed if it was ever lost. "It was such a big part of our lives," he said.

Mr Peters said players wanted the focus to be on the future.

"For them the issue has moved on. They have accepted that the choice for the union wasn't easy - in some cases [the union] didn't want to see Maori players ostracised in South Africa; it wasn't because they were considered to be second-class citizens."

According to Malcolm Mulholland's book Beneath the Maori Moon, the Maori board has been steadfast in supporting the union's decisions since 1925, when it was announced Maori would be excluded from an All Blacks team to tour South Africa in 1928.

The board supported the exclusion of Maori players after South African Prime Minister JB Hertzog made a request to New Zealand Prime Minister Gordon Coates.

In 1949, there was some controversy about whether the Maori board was properly represented in discussions to again exclude Maori players, but NZRU issued a statement saying the board supported the tour.

In 1959, a year before the last white-only tour, the Maori board refused to meet with Maori leaders but met with the union, and reaffirmed its support of the policy to exclude Maori players.

Mr Peters said it had never been an easy decision for previous Maori boards, as no one accepted the apartheid regime.

"If I had gone to the Maori players of the era and said you're not invited and the rest shouldn't go, what do you think they would've said? They understand the issue was bigger than the game of rugby. They were caught in a political crossfire. The affected players were asked to make a sacrifice and they did," he said.

"I haven't had one player say the team shouldn't have gone."

Maori rugby legend George Nepia wrote in his book I, George Nepia in 1963 that Maori players were "saddened, disappointed and humiliated by the attitude of the body, namely the New Zealand Rugby Union".

Mr Peters said he could understand Nepia's disappointment and respected his words but did not agree that it made an apology necessary.

"It's not to suggest we don't have respect for him but if you were told you couldn't participate, [feeling] disappointment would be the absolute minimum. But it wasn't orchestrated by the players or NZRU."

In 1981, Springboks manager Johan Claassen apologised to all Maoris who had not been allowed to tour South Africa.

Mr Peters said an apology from South Africa was appropriate: "If it was genuine then that would seem to be appropriate because that's the country that was responsible for the action. The invitation in 1949 and 1960 was given on the basis of no Maori players."

Asked if an apology would help everyone move on, Mr Peters said: "Some action purely for the sake of achieving some solution which just makes this goes away - I don't think that's a responsible action to make in regard to the issue."

Mr Peters said the board considered respect toward affected players of utmost importance.

"I want no suggestion that the respect for them wasn't considered. I vehemently deny that. It was: how do we approach the issue and what the focus should be."

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