Steve Braunias has challenged all the party political leaders to a game of table tennis. He's beaten David Seymour, James Shaw, and Andrew Little. His latest opponent: Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell.
Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell walked softly into the Manurewa Table Tennis club last Friday morning like a man heading for the gallows. He was alone, and at a low ebb: his flight from Wellington had been delayed and only got into Auckland close to midnight, and his minders were out looking for his lost luggage. It was very cold. He wore a beanie, a hoodie, and jeans. He didn't look like a minister of the crown. He didn't look like the leader of a party that props up a government. He didn't look like any kind of winner, and the sight of him made my heart sing.
Here, surely, was the fourth scalp in my political party leader table tennis challenge. Seymour, Shaw and Little were bleating little lambs to the slaughter of my game, which is without any advanced or even basic technique, but thrives on sheer rage. Table tennis is a complex sport. It's an emotional and intellectual experience as much as a physical encounter, chess with one piece, a brief and intense fever. Flavell looked weary. His 61 years settled on him like dust. I thought: I'm gonna take out the trash.
We sat in the lounge of the clubrooms and chatted for a while. The suburb of Homai was an unlikely destination for one of the grand and venerable stadiums of New Zealand table tennis. The block of shops was made up of three self-service laundromats and three dairies with competitive prices for blocks of Yum Yum Noodles ($9.50 at Chands, $9 at Super 7). I called into the Raja Barber Shop for a very good haircut for $10 from Nishan Singh, and he brushed my neck with talcum powder.
The stadium is a big green shed beside the railway station. It's also a national treasure. It celebrated two anniversaries this year: the club was formed in 1947, and it built the stadium in 1967. It's widely regarded as having the best playing conditions in the country. Now and then I gazed over at the five German tables with real longing as Flavell talked, and talked, and talked.
You ask that guy a question and he may or may not answer it but he will most assuredly reply at length. It was less the oratory of the marae than the uninterrupted monologue of all school principals. Flavell is an old boy and ex-principal of St Stephen's, that sadly abandoned Maori boys' boarding college in the Bombay Hills. He was captain of the first XV. "We were undefeated," he remarked. He played loose forward, then hooker; he still had a robust physical bearing, was in good shape.
I said, "What about table tennis? Do you have form?"
He said, "I haven't picked up a bat for a while, but it won't matter today."
And then he laughed, with great merriment. This was the precise moment I began to both like and fear him.
We took to the tables. Three august gentlemen of New Zealand table tennis were in attendance: national president Gary Williams, club president and national coach Geoff Rau, and John Tuki, coach of the national para team. Geoff took on the role of umpire. John recorded the game on his phone for analysis. Gary chatted up ministerial secretary Naomi Solomon, who found Flavell's luggage. Her discovery lifted the minister's mood, but not for long.
I scalped Flavell in the first game 21-13. He appeared to strike the ball with a vicious, diabolical spin, and it certainly swerved in the air and described interesting arcs, but it only ever landed with a flat dull thud and was easy to return. To put it another way, the ball was all talk. What did it achieve? What, indeed, has the Maori Party achieved in its last nine years as National's stooge? The ping-pong was the political. It illuminated the party's existential crisis. What does the Maori Party even mean? In the same way that I wiped the floor with Flavell, the Te Ture Whenua Maori "land reform" bill has been an apparent shambles - described as the party's "flagship policy", six years in the making, it was withdrawn last month, leaving Flavell with a whole bunch of nothing.
He didn't like losing our game. He issued a bunch of excuses. None of them added up to a hill of beans. Defeat is always revealing. All winners are alike; each defeated player is unhappy in their own way. In 2012, I had the privilege of being inside the Auckland Blues camp when they lost seven consecutive games under coach Pat Lam. I was a witness to history. Super 14 rugby had never been played so badly or so neurotically, and with such self-loathing. The whole team fell into an abyss of failure. To watch them was to observe a laboratory experiment in despair.
I studied Flavell closely, and said to him, "How're you feeling?"
"There's an old Maori proverb, a whakatauki," he said. I thought: oh God here we go. But it was short and sharp. "Kei mate wheke. Kia mate ururoa. In English, 'Don't give in like an octopus. Fight like a shark.' You know my name, Ururoa, means shark?"
I sucked on that while he turned to Geoff Rau for table tennis advice. Geoff sorted out his hands and his feet: he gave Flavell expert coaching on his spin, and told him to take off his boots.
The minister played barefoot and the years fell away. He was spry, confident, in terrific good humour. This time his spin really did spin. He gave me a thrashing, 21-13.
"Best of three," I said.
The photographer and the videographer moved in closer. They had the scent of blood but let me say at once that it was a travesty our game merited any attention. All available media ought to have been out in force at the Auckland Table Tennis Stadium last Friday and Saturday for the North Island championship. There was high excitement at the men's singles final, when the great modern champion Teng Teng Liu engaged in insanely long rallies with his opponent Dean Shu - the two of them bashed it at each other up to 12, 13 times, as Shu stood up to Teng Teng's powerful forehand swing. Meanwhile the legendary Barry Griffiths, eight-time national champion in the 1980s, showed his enduring class when he partnered Joanne Shaw to the final of the open mixed doubles. In last week's match report of playing Andrew Little in Epsom, I referred to recognising former magazine publisher Sarah Sandley, a veteran champion, at another table; with Joanne Shaw, she won the women's doubles at the North Island champs.
We cross live back to Homai. I turned to Gary Williams and Geoff Rau for advice. Gary told me I needed to move faster. He said it with a certain malicious glee; I thought of his son, the comedian Guy Williams, and how the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree.
Geoff's advice was to play it both long and short, and press Flavell for mistakes. He said, "So long as you're good with long rallies?" I love a long rally. One of my favourite table tennis stories is the mythical long point between two players at the 1936 world champs in Prague; the first point of their match lasted two hours and 12 minutes, and a witness estimated the ball crossed the net more than 12,000 times.
Game three was close. We played long rallies. Flavell made mistakes, and cursed. "I'm a very emotional person," he'd said in the lounge. I'd asked him which great figures in Maori history he found particularly inspiring, and I wondered whether he'd name a warrior chief or somesuch action man mofo, but he talked about Apirana Ngata and Maui Pomare - political leaders, statesmen. Men of quiet determination, committed to the slow process of making gains for Maori.
Geoff Rau said afterwards, "It was like a chess game, that last one. Very, very tactical."
John Tuki said, "I analysed it on video. He had no backhand, and no attacking shots. You could have destroyed him."
Gary Williams said, "You fought for every point, showed a lot of character."
The octopus became the shark. Flavell won 21-16. All those years of playing table tennis at St Stephen's, as a boy and later as a principal, paid off.
Angela Rau, Geoff's wife, had baked a delicious apricot slice for the after-match refreshments, and it disguised the bitter taste of defeat - for a while. The legendary American champion Dick Miles once said, "If you want to be a great player, you have to be angry if you lose. I myself used to get very sad if I lost."
I fought back tears and wolfed down slice after slice. Flavell changed into a suit, and looked even more like a winner. He cracked jokes and was very gracious. Interesting guy. Patient, humble. Funny, a gasbag, vulnerable. "I struggle sometimes in non-Maori environments," he said, when we first met. Gary Williams said afterwards, "He came in here like a politician. But the sportsman took over."
Series score: Braunias takes a hit, but still leads the series 3-1.