Maori former All Blacks have welcomed NZRU's apology to Maori players excluded from All Blacks teams because of apartheid, saying "it had to come" and was the "right thing to do".

New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) acting chairman Mike Eagle and chief executive Steve Tew issued the apology this morning after weeks of public debate.

Former All Black Bill Bush said he was not surprised that the union reversed its stance and apologised during Maori rugby's 100th anniversary, saying "it had to come".

"It's great. It's healed a lot of grievances. We've put it behind us now ... it always just drove a wedge in Maori and pakeha relations," Bush said.

But he was a little disappointed that the apology had not been made in Parliament, when the union had had the chance two months ago, Bush said.

Former All Black Waka Nathan, who was a young member of the Maori All Blacks when Maori were excluded from a South Africa tour in 1960, said an apology was the "right thing to do".

"I thought it was very good indeed, for New Zealand especially - we have always been against apartheid. It never even entered our minds," Nathan said.

However, not all former Maori rugby players were so charitable about the NZRU's actions.

The NZRU merely "towed along behind South Africa" to make a "token" apology to Maori this morning, says a player who missed out on his best chance to make the All Blacks due to racially-based selection policies.

"Whether the apology is genuine or not is a matter of opinion ... but personally those were my best years," said Bill Wordley, a former New Zealand Maori hooker who was denied the chance to compete for a place on the All Blacks in 1960.

"I even got a letter that came out of the rugby union saying 'you won't be considered for the trials'. [Then] you might as well kiss it goodbye," Wordley said.

"My best chance was about that period. I might never have made it but I had a chance. I didn't get the chance.

"It should never really have happened but it did happen and nothing's going to change that."

The apology comes nearly a week after South Africa's sport and recreation minster, Reverend Makhenkesi Arnold Stofile, sent a public letter of apology to Maori players who were left out of tours to the republic in 1928, 1949 and 1960.

The South African Rugby Union also issued an apology this morning.

"[NZRU's apology] was more or less tagging along with African responses. They certainly took a long time about it, but mainly it was a government sort of directive and just sort of towed along with what the other nations thought," Wordley said.

"The rugby union sort of dragged the chain a bit. They could've apologised [earlier] and it wouldn't have hurt anyone but they followed the party line when South Africa apologised. They more or less had to follow suit.

"I think it's just a token gesture. I'm happy they've done it, anyway. It's all done and dusted now, whether it's genuine or not."

Earlier this year NZRU's Maori Board recommended the union celebrate Maori Rugby's 100th anniversary by looking forward rather than apologising.

"It just makes you wonder what the hell goes on down there," Wordley said.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Mulholland, a historian who has written on the issue, said he had talked with all eight families directly affected by the racially-based selection policies last night, and most were grateful for the apology.

They would be organising a hui in Gisborne, where Maori previously welcomed the Springboks, inviting the two rugby unions and two Governments.

"The only thing [the families] did say was it would be good to get it face-to-face ... I definitely think it will happen," Mr Mulholland said.

"The apology itself is significant but the final chapter will come as they come to the hui. It's all done in good faith. It's just an opportunity to shake hands and put it past."

The public pressure for an apology because "pretty obvious" and it was a no-brainer, he said.

The Maori board's chairman, Wayne Peters, said last month that an apology was not desired by affected players, who had "moved on".

"For them the issue has moved on. They have accepted that the choice for the union wasn't easy," Mr Peters said.

The board had decided the focus for the centenary should be the future and advised NZRU an apology was unnecessary, he said.

- NZHERALD STAFF