The Government is refusing to join the New Zealand Rugby Union in apologising for the exclusion of Maori from the All Blacks tours to South Africa.

The 1960 tour to South Africa was sanctioned by the New Zealand Government and the then Prime Minister Walter Nash argued that to include Maori in the side "would be an act of the greatest folly and cruelty to the Maori race".

Prime Minister John Key was asked by Green Party foreign affairs spokesman Keith Locke whether he would be apologising for the Government's role in sanctioning the tours.

In a written answer last night, Mr Key said: "No. This was a matter between the rugby unions".

Mr Locke said New Zealand should follow the Government of South African Government which has offered an apology, albeit through the media by way of a public letter.

"In both 1948 and 1960 the government hosted official farewells at Parliament for the all-white All Blacks, despite significant public protest.

"In that year one thousand people protested outside Parliament while the team was being honoured inside. The Nash government had already received the largest citizens' petition since the time of the suffrage movement, with 153,000 signatures protesting the exclusion of Maori," Mr Locke said.

His comments are echoed by former All Black Vern Winitana who praised South Africa for taking the lead in apologising, and called on the New Zealand Government to likewise apologise.

He said the Government had been a willing participant in rugby's racist policies and had failed to protect New Zealanders' rights.

At the same time, questions have been raised about the NZRU apology.

Letters released to the Herald under the Official information Act reveal that the NZRU had been reluctant to criticise past administrations for excluding Maori from the All Blacks as it believed they had sometimes been acting "to protect the interests of Maori".

Private emails written the week the NZRU apologised to Maori players about racial selection policies during All Blacks tours of South Africa shows NZRU chief executive Steve Tew wrote to Sports Minister Murray McCully's office to say: "Our predecessors were sometimes acting to protect the interests of Maori from racial vilification."

Mr Tew's comment was foreshadowed by All Blacks team manager and selector Tom Pearce, who in 1960 said the exclusion of Maori from the touring side "sprang only from love of them - those gentle people. We wouldn't hurt them in the least".

The comment was published in Douglas Booth's book The Race Game: Sport and Politics in South Africa.

Mr Tew said the NZRU had delayed making an apology following advice from the rugby union's Maori Board that it was "not necessary".

"However, we are conscious that a significant number of New Zealanders feel it is right and appropriate for the NZRU to make some gesture of reconciliation," Mr Tew wrote.

The NZRU's apology came five days after the South African Sports Minister offered an apology to Maori.

Emails show the South African rugby union had prepared and sent its own draft apology to the NZRU three days before the NZRU issued its statement.

An NZRU spokesman said its board had discussed making an apology with the South African Rugby Union during the week, and submitted a draft to a meeting the day before the apologies were issued.

The final board decision to issue an apology was made at that meeting, he said.

The correspondence between the NZRU and Government outraged Mr Winitana, who called it "weasel words".

The NZRU's position was "tokenistic, paternalistic and feeble", Mr Winitana said.

He said the NZRU had issued an apology but were not actually taking any responsibility. "All anyone wants is a sincere apology," Winitana said.

Last month, NZRU Maori Board chairman Wayne Peters told the Herald that apologising simply to help people move on was irresponsible.

NZRU acting chairman Mike Eagle told media earlier this month that the Maori Board was at no stage against the issuing of an apology.

"At no stage were they against it; the timing just wasn't right in their opinion," Mr Eagle said.