NZ Maori can dodge SA race rule, says Bush

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Calling the New Zealand Maori side a "cultural" side could get around a race rule that would stop them touring South Africa, says a former captain.

Former All Black and New Zealand Maori captain Billy Bush said he received an invitation just before Christmas from a manager of an "Afrikaans cultural side" to take a New Zealand Maori side to South Africa on a separate tour.

The South African Rugby Union has said a rule that forbids South African rugby players to play against teams that have been "selected along racial lines" could stop the Maori side from touring.

But Bush said when the Maori team go on tour, it is not all about rugby.

He said the side act as ambassadors for Maori culture.

"Everywhere we've gone, we perform cultural songs and haka," Bush said.

He said the Maori side is part of the country's rich rugby culture with the first Maori tour in 1888/89.

"I understand South Africa's position because they've had 500 years of [white rule]. And it's not long ago when Maori couldn't go to South Africa," Bush said, referring to the 1970 tour when Maori players were able to travel as "honorary whites", a decision that angered the country's anti-apartheid movement.

New Zealand's race relations commissioner Joris de Bres threw support behind the proposed match today, writing to the South African union to say he had "no problem" with the ethnic make-up of the Maori team.

"As New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner I appreciate why such a policy would have been adopted, particularly because of the racial discrimination in sport that existed in South Africa under apartheid," de Bres said.

"However, there is no such discrimination in New Zealand: people of all ethnic backgrounds are eligible to play in New Zealand's national, regional and local representative teams. Alongside that, consistent with the principle of freedom of association, people are free to play together in any other combination.

"I would urge you to proceed with the proposed game between the Springboks and the New Zealand Maori rugby team in Soweto. I am sure it would be welcomed by the people of Soweto, the people of South Africa and the people of New Zealand."

The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has confirmed they are looking at the possibility of a match between South Africa and the New Zealand Maori this year as a warm-up for the British and Irish Lions tour.

However the South African rugby union said there are a number of hurdles.

"We can confirm that the New Zealand Rugby Union has inquired if there was an opportunity for the Maori team to appear in South Africa," a statement said on the SARU website.

"SA Rugby is examining the possibility but no decision has been taken on whether the offer will be accepted and there are several obstacles to overcome should we wish to pursue the offer."

"They include the financial viability of the project, logistics around venues and player availability and the fundamental stumbling block of a long-established President's Council resolution forbidding the appearance of SARU teams against opponents selected along racial lines."

A final decision on the tour is not expected until the end of March.

The New Zealand Rugby Union this afternoon confirmed that discussions on the tour were underway.

NZRU professional rugby general manager Neil Sorensen said the union had been working to arrange a match between the Maori and the Springboks.

"Obviously, it would be fantastic for New Zealand Maori, the Springboks and their respective fans if the match took place but it is still early days and we know that there are a number of hurdles that need to be cleared if the match is to be confirmed," Mr Sorensen said.

He said the reported race rule has not yet come up in discussions between the union.

"That is obviously just one of the many things that SA Rugby will need to discuss internally but we obviously hope that the match will take place and will hold further talks with SA Rugby over the coming weeks."

The match has been welcomed by South African coach Peter de Villiers, who described it as imperative in terms of preparing his side for the three-test series.

The Springboks are due to meet lowly Namibia in Windhoek in late May and wanted the much harder match against New Zealand Maori as a final warm-up.

The series against the Lions starts in Durban on June 20.

Last week the Herald revealed that Bush and Jonah Lomu's former manager Phil Kingsley Jones had tried to arrange a tour for the New Zealand Maori squad but were rejected by the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU).

The NZRU said allowing third party control over the team could compromise relationships with commercial partners and other international unions.

The move by the pair came after NZRU decided to axe tours by the Maori, Heartland 15 and Black Ferns in order to save money.

However, at the time, the union said if another union would foot the bill, then the Maori side may still be able to tour.

In terms of competition, Maori is often of a higher standard than full test teams from most other nations.

Maori have wins to their credit over the British and Irish Lions in 2005, beat the United States 74-6 in 2007 and won last year beat Japan, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Australia's A selection to win the Pacific Nations Cup.

The abandonment of the match on racial grounds would have a bitter irony for Maori players who were once prevented by South Africa's apartheid laws from joining All Blacks tours to the republic.

The match is also seen as a filip to Soweto, the sprawling black community on the outskirts of Johannesburg that was the heartland of the anti-apartheid struggle.

- NZ HERALD STAFF, AP

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