One of Hawke's Bay and New Zealand's greatest rugby players, George Nepia (1905–86) was born in Nuhaka, Wairoa.

After leaving Nuhaka Primary School, at age 16 he attended the Maori Agricultural College at Bridge Pa, Hastings. There, coach Elder Moser would have a large influence on his rugby.

George made his rugby debut for Hawke's Bay in 1922. At the time, the team was one of the strongest in New Zealand and was on the threshold of the first of its golden Ranfurly Shield eras.

This included a run of 24 successful defences before losing to Wairarapa at McLean Park, Napier, in 1927.


George played 28 matches for Hawke's Bay and 15 for East Coast.

Selection for the All Blacks occurred when George was aged 19, in 1924.

He was part of the famous Invincibles side which won all 32 games during the 1924–25 European tour.

Incredibly, George played in every game. He was the only player to do so.

Five other Hawke's Bay players were in the team: Lui Paewai, Cyril and Maurice Brownlie, Jimmy Mill and Bull Irvine.

George played at fullback and led the team's haka before each match – which had been specially created for the tour.

Nuhaka was proud of its most famous son, and after the 1925 tour, the community gathered to greet him with a banner strung over the road saying, "Welcome Home! Well done George!"

After a function, he was presented with a gold medal and cheque. Nuhaka was especially proud that George had played in every match – "a record that could never be beaten," said A G Nolan of the Wairoa Sub-Union.

Nolan jokingly said it was too bad George couldn't stay in the district as the Nuhaka team was so strong this season, "they could not find a place in the team for him".

Rumours began to circulate that George had signed to play rugby league for Hull in England – which he denied. He wasn't even sure where Hull was.

He had instead got a job in a Port Ahuriri wool store and The Daily Telegraph confirmed that the "healthy-looking, well-proportioned young Maori riding an Indian motorcycle" was George Nepia.

George married Huinga Kohere of Rangitukia in 1926.

A three-month All Black tour to South Africa beckoned in 1928, which would be captained by George's Hawke's Bay teammate, Maurice Brownlie. But Nepia would not be part of the team: they would be the all-white All Blacks.

This resulted in the first protests against racial discrimination in sport.

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A London newspaper reported New Zealand was not to blame for excluding players on the basis of colour. Such was the severity of the "colour line", the South African authorities could not countenance the presence of Nepia.

"The Maoris," said the paper, "are always welcome over here. They constitute part of the Empire, of which we are proud, but, unlike South Africa, there is no native population in these isles that might easily constitute a menace if at all encouraged."

In 1929, George went on the All Blacks tour of Australia and in 1930 he faced the British Lions at home. This was his last outing as an All Black. He tried for selection in 1935 for a tour to England, but missed out and instead captained a New Zealand Māori team for a brief tour to Australia.

In all, he played 46 matches for the All Blacks, including nine tests.

George sailed later in 1935 aboard the Akaroa to London, to begin his rugby league career with Streatham and Mitcham Rugby League Club, and later transferred to Halifax.

Interestingly, the ship he sailed on was previously called Euripides and took the All Blacks to South Africa in 1928.

While he played league in England, his family stayed in New Zealand, on the farm in Ruatoria.

George's fee of £500 (2008: $57,345) was the highest paid to any player at that point for rugby league.

The changeover to league, he said, "had been taking advantage of an exceptional opportunity" to finance the development of his farm.

Rugby union was a strictly amateur game at that time, and his switch meant he was now a union outcast.

Arriving back in New Zealand in 1937, he played league for Manukau and was in the Kiwis' famous 16–15 win over Australia.

A 1947 amnesty by the New Zealand Rugby Union allowed former league players to return to rugby union.

George would play in a first-class match for the Olympians aged 45 against a Poverty Bay side captained by his oldest son, also called George.

It made him the oldest New Zealander to play in a first-class match and it remains the only time a father has played against a son in at that level.

George jnr died while in military service for the Fijian Battalion and was one of the 27 men recently returned from Singapore, where he had been buried since 1954.

A sergeant, he was laid to rest on Wednesday this week at St Mary's Church, Tikitiki, next to his mother and father.

The mighty George Nepia, arguably New Zealand rugby's first superstar, passed away aged 81 in August 1986.

• Coming soon, Historic Hawke's Bay by Michael Fowler. A collection of his best articles 2016-2018. Email for pre-order information.

• Michael Fowler FCA ( is a chartered accountant and contract researcher of Hawke's Bay's history.