Rugby: Impressive wins put future of Maori game in spotlight

By Dylan Cleaver

Hosea Gear and Jamie Joseph have plenty to be cheerful about following victories over England and Ireland recently. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Hosea Gear and Jamie Joseph have plenty to be cheerful about following victories over England and Ireland recently. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The future of Maori rugby looks a lot brighter than it did a fortnight ago, but the time remains ripe to debate how that future is configured.

The wins against Ireland and England were largely lost among the hype that surrounded the All Whites' improbable World Cup campaign, which is a shame because it stands as a landmark achievement at a pivotal time.

If coach Jamie Joseph was asked once during this short centenary tour about the future of Maori rugby, he was asked a thousand times. Repetition did not make the question any less weighty or complex.

There is no easy answer. With the New Zealand Rugby Union posting a record loss last year and the pressure to reclaim the World Cup increasing by the day, balancing the twin pillars of commercial and high-performance success has never been more difficult.

The Maori are an uneasy fit with either aim.

The question of its place within the high-performance structure needs close examination.

There will always be a few troglodytes that burrow their way up to the Earth's surface to claim that New Zealand Maori, selected on the basis of ethnicity, is racist.

It's an argument that warrants scant response. No one in the upper echelons of Maori rugby is claiming their three victories this month was proof of racial superiority. They might promote the best elements of Maoridom, but they never do so to denigrate other cultures.

Selection for Maori rugby teams might be race-based, but it is no more racist than the Black Ferns is sexist and the New Zealand Universities (and some schoolboy rugby) is elitist. With Maori leading so many of the wrong statistical categories, something that promotes pride in the culture and a healthy lifestyle should be encouraged.

But push that nonsense to the side and you can still mount a strong argument that a 2nd XV, whether it is called an 'A' team or the Juniors, would be more beneficial to the NZRU's high-performance aims. That would guarantee the country's best 50 players international rugby each year, whether their roots are Maori, Pakeha, Pacific Island or elsewhere.

We saw that this year with the likes of Alby Mathewson, Rene Ranger, Colin Slade and Ben Smith, all knocking on the door of All Black selection, toddling off to club rugby while "lesser" players were involved in the furnace of international rugby.

When you put tradition ahead of the health of the pointy end of your sport, it becomes easier to dismiss the concept of a fully funded Maori side as an anachronism.

Perhaps the future of Maori rugby is linked to the return of three-test tours and accompanying midweek games.

Even this is fraught. The Northern Hemisphere teams who come here in June at the end of a long season, tend to want to play less, not more. The thought of their midweek XVs being hijacked by a pumped up Maori side is unpalatable.

You'd like to think the NZRU could use the muscle they have to insist they are included on the itinerary, but the quid that accompanies the pro quo might be too rich.

Overseas tours are becoming more unrealistic. Again, you have to have teams to play and the calendars are full to overflowing as it is. The thought of the Maori heading to the Northern Hemisphere and playing club sides resting all their best players is too sad to contemplate.

Anyway, the biggest beneficiaries of Maori rugby should be Maori youth, so it makes more sense for them to play the vast majority of their games in New Zealand.

Internal tours are expensive, too, but this centenary series might have offered the initial sketchings of a sustainable blueprint.

The NZRU broadened its reach, tapping into and receiving support from the likes of Te Puni Kokiri and local iwi. The onus might fall more on the Maori board to continue to develop and expand these sponsorship and revenue streams.

It is a sad reality in professional sport that when you can convince the beancounters you have a future, you're more than halfway there.

- NZ Herald

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