Rotorua is ready. This is a marriage of place, people and pageant - the Maori versus the British (and Irish) in Rotorua. Perfect. For a night, at least, Maori rugby will be back on a pedestal.

Then what? Wayne "Buck" Shelford, one of Rotorua's favourite sons, admits he's not sure.

"The commitment to Maori rugby is not as great as it was," Shelford told the Weekend Herald, lamenting the watering down of the Prince of Wales tournaments that were once the highlight of the Maori rugby calendar.

Shelford learned his rugby in this town. His favourite days at primary school were when "Matua" Jim Maniapoto - Tuwharetoa legend and Bay of Plenty stalwart - came in to visit his teacher wife and sprinkle a little magic dust on the kids.


"We looked up to him, literally. It was like wow, there was this big, huge man. We wanted to play rugby because Matua Jim was at our school. His brother as well, Manu [who died this year]. It was inspiring to meet these Maori All Blacks."

Shelford, 59, never played for the Bay, leaving Western Heights High School to join the navy, but he followed Maniapoto's giant footsteps into the Maori and went one step further into the All Blacks.

It was in this environment that Shelford helped burnish the Tuwharetoa legacy, Ka Mate.

"I wasn't motivated to revive it personally but in 1985 Hika [Reid] and I were in the team and we were approached. They knew we grew up in a Maori area and they said to us, 'Can we do the haka?'

"I looked at Hika and Hika looked at me and we said: 'Yeah, yeah, we can do it, but only if we get permission from the management and they're behind it, and every single player is 100 per cent committed too.' If we didn't get the full buy-in we're not going to do it.

"Once we got that I said we're going to do it properly because I don't want to disrespect our tikanga and I don't want to be an embarrassment on TV all over the world.

"Since then it has grown and grown. That's great because we recognise the All Blacks as not only the best team in the world, but one that keeps Maori culture to the forefront."

And yet, once more with feeling, the haka has become a lightning rod for suspicion and manufactured controversy.


A column in the London Telegraph obscured some valid points around the haka's ubiquity with the facile contention that a gesture was offensive to the victims of the recent London Bridge atrocity.

When the author used the line, "Warren Gatland's men will see more tongues than the average dentist", there was an unmistakable sneer to his words, which was a shame, because if he'd left it at the following he would have come across less pompously: "It is turning into little more than a branding exercise beloved by the marketing men. We have reached a stage where there is a risk of overkill. The danger is a novelty to be enjoyed will turn into a formality to be endured."

Wayne Shelford Buck Shelford is credited with bringing about the improved performance of the All Blacks' traditional
Wayne Shelford Buck Shelford is credited with bringing about the improved performance of the All Blacks' traditional "Ka Mate" haka. Photo / Greg Bowker

He has a point: nobody seems to have provided a persuasive argument as to why the Super Rugby franchises, themselves born out of broadcast imperatives rather than tradition, felt compelled to challenge the Lions with a haka.

Shelford needed no marketing consultants to burnish his connection to his land and people and in Rotorua at least, when the Maori step out on to the inaptly named International Stadium, the haka's motives will be unquestioned and its relevance undimmed.

As for Maori rugby as a whole, it's proud history is under threat, believes Shelford, and the reason for it could be directly attributed to the rise in Pasifika rugby.

Shelford cited the pre-European running game of ki-o-rahi and the tendency to war as reasons Maori took to rugby hand in glove.


"They were a warrior people. That's in the history books. Being warriors, they had to stay fit because they travelled a lot . . . so they were fit men who enjoyed playing games.

"As soon as the Europeans arrived and brought rugby, the skills [translated] so Maori jumped right in there. The confrontation, the running, the joy of scoring a try. It was the type of game they needed."

Louisa Wall, Labour MP and former Black Fern, phrases the same point slightly differently.

"I don't want to call us a warrior people, but we were a people willing to fight and go to war. Rugby is like that in a way. It's very tribal.

A lot of the Polynesian boys are being picked up before the Maori boys nowadays.

"On the field you need people beside you who you know are going to go as hard as you."

Maori were also, Shelford contends, men who physically matured younger than Europeans.


"[The Pasifika] rise has killed Maori rugby a bit. A lot of the Polynesian boys are being picked up before the Maori boys nowadays.

"We're smaller and because we've got the European genes in us we grow slower, very much like the Pakeha. You get the Polynesians and their full-on protein diet from birth, they're big and strong boys from the get go."

If Shelford is right and the national body's commitment to Maori rugby is waning, then the fightback might come from within.

One of the success stories of provincial rugby has taken place on the sparsely populated East Coast, where the union chose to base their eligibility around iwi rather than boundaries. It has enabled Ngati Porou East Coast, with a permanent population of just 6000, to maintain nine clubs and thrust rugby back into the centre of their communities.

In the Far North, Mate Radich told the Weekend Herald he wants the local sub-unions to split from the Northland Rugby Union mothership and do the same, using iwi to inject new life into the sport which he says has declined dramatically in recent years.

None of these conundrums will be pondered upon tonight. The only question will be can the Maori All Blacks beat the Lions?


The present is right here in Rotorua, the place of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, Maori's greatest love story.

For one night, their story will pale in comparison to another great love match - Maori and rugby.

And it will start with a haka.