Susan Devoy: All Blacks to Samoa the least we can do

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New Zealand needs to prove its mutual respect and make a Pacific test happen, writes Dame Susan Devoy.

Students at St Patrick's College, Silverstream, re-enact a photo of the school's first Samoan boarders with  Dame Susan Devoy.
Students at St Patrick's College, Silverstream, re-enact a photo of the school's first Samoan boarders with Dame Susan Devoy.

Hold fast to your cultural treasures, "Taofi mau i au measina" was this year's Samoan Language Week theme and it's good advice. Because the measina or treasure we need to hold fast to is about a sport embedded in the DNA of families who live in places called Apia, Thames, Nuku'alofa, Bluff, Suva, and Greytown. The treasure we need to hold fast to is people and mutual respect for one another.

Outside of Samoa, more Samoans live here than anywhere else so in a way, New Zealand is Samoa's second home. Some refer to Samoa as a friend but the island nation and its sons and daughters are more like family, or fanau.

But our relationship has had its share of darkness. This year marks 100 years since New Zealand seized Samoa from Germany. Ninety-six years since our Government allowed an influenza-infected ship to dock in Apia: 8500 died and Samoa lost 22 per cent of her people. Eighty-five years since "Black Saturday", when New Zealand officers opened machine gun fire on unarmed Samoan civilians marching for independence; nine were killed including Paramount Chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofioaana III.

From these painful beginnings, our modern relationship with Samoa was born.

Thankfully, and more recently, in 2002 Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised for the early, appalling years of New Zealand rule.

For Samoan Language Week, I attended an unforgettable church service at PIPC Porirua. Unforgettable because, as well as entertaining sermons and beautiful singing, we also heard our national anthem sung in Samoan for the very first time. Next morning, out at St Patrick's College Silverstream, students re-enacted a photo of the college's first Samoan boarders. One of those boys from 1955 is a nephew of the chief gunned down on Black Saturday, and now he's Samoa's Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese. Pacific Island Affairs Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga was also at church that Sunday. Born in Samoa and raised in Mangere, he's a Cambridge graduate and former hooker for the NZ Barbarians Club. Peseta was humbled at how Samoan people are influenced and inspired by identity while ever keen to share it with the rest of New Zealand.

However we can't be proud the All Blacks have never played a game in Samoa or Tonga. Pacific New Zealanders' contribution to New Zealand and global rugby is extraordinary. Their potent legacy can be found in clubrooms and on playing fields across our country, in the scores of coaches, administrators and players. Respect for each other and for this legacy demands change.

As part of Helen Clark's apology she said we are bound by geography, history, culture, family and mutual respect. But mutual respect is at the heart of today's problem: Samoa has no seat at the decision-making table and no vote on the IRB Council, while Sanzar nations and France have two each. For 15 years our rugby union has led every motion to give Pacific rugby nations economic benefits but we do not have a majority vote. New Zealanders need to realise this.

The impact of Samoan players like the formidable Ma'a Nonu on New Zealand rugby is substantial. Photo / Getty Images

Whether or not the All Blacks and other international sides should play in Samoa is not the issue: working out how to get them there is. Would a one-off test in Apia be best? Or would Samoa's entry to the Rugby Championship be more sustainable, with a mix of home games in Auckland and the islands. What support could the Ministry of Culture and Heritage come up with? Can John Campbell and TV3 come up with a broadcasting deal to match their awesome #ABstoSamoa campaign?

In the short term, New Zealand should do everything possible to find a way to play in Apia. This is a real opportunity to do the right thing, pull our sleeves up and come up with a solution. Sometimes we take for granted those things that deserve our gratitude: this is one of those times. In the long term, international rugby needs to give Pacific rugby nations a place at the table and the respect they not only deserve, but have totally earned.

Race relations isn't all about enforcing laws and international conventions: at its heart, race relations is about giving others a fair go and treating them with respect. Not because you have to, but because it's the right thing to do. We need to have the courage to act with mana now, so in years to come we don't look back with regret.

Dame Susan Devoy is Race Relations Commissioner.

- NZ Herald

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