In celebration of Māori Language Week, I have delved into the story of the Māori All Blacks, formerly New Zealand Māori, a historic rugby team representing the proud culture of our country, Aotearoa.
In 1888, the New Zealand Natives were one of the country's maiden national rugby sides, playing Hawke's Bay in their first ever match, with the Natives winning 5-0.
Later that year they would play their first international side, recording their first national win, 13-4, when beating Ireland in Dublin.
The first to wear the famous black jersey, the side was originally conceived as an all-Māori squad and ultimately included just five non-Māori players in the team.
The Māori All Blacks have beaten many internationals sides, including the British and Irish Lions, England and Ireland.
The last time they lost to a Pacific Island side was in 1973 (Tonga).
Originally the team selected was 'loosely' governed in terms of heritage, but now all players must have Māori whakapapa or genealogy confirmed in order to represent the side.
Bruce Reihana, one of Te Awamutu's few born-and bred All Blacks, was a Māori All Black from 1998-2002.
He scored eight tries in his 11 appearances for the side before heading offshore.
"Playing for the Māori All Blacks was one of my ultimate goals, to put the jersey on was one of the best feelings of achievement!" says Reihana.
"The Māori All Blacks were a very tight group of players, it's like we were family from day one."
Te Awamutu Sports coach Jackson Willison is of Ngāti Mahuta/Tainui heritage and a former Māori All Black. He backs up Reihana's comments profusely.
When he was named in the squad for the first time in 2010, he was full of excitement.
"It was certainly unexpected; it was only my second year of Super Rugby. It was such a proud time for myself, but more so for my family. Growing up in my family the Māori culture was a massive thing," he says.
"There were certainly a lot of learnings taken out of it. I was lucky enough to have played with Māori All Blacks, and All Blacks at the time, Luke McAlister, Piri Weepu, Corey Flynn. It was awesome and that was just to name a few.
"I still had relatively new teammates but I had known Liam Messam and a couple of Waikato boys anyway.
"I felt really comfortable in the environment but in a sense I was just happy to be there, which is probably something I'd look back and think, man, I should have made more of the opportunity."
When asked about his Māori All Blacks experience, Willison has great passion in his answer.
"It just meant more than a personal achievement putting on that jersey. It was my heritage and growing up on the West Coast it was inspirational, not only to my family but to all the kids. You realise soon after that, definitely not at the time, that it affects not only you but everyone around you, a positive effect," says Willison.
"It's a team like no other. There's a lot more to it than the actual game on the weekend but it's the game that brings us all together."
Right from the start, the team and staff have something in common that connects them, bringing them together as one – their culture.
"We often had feasts, not particularly high performance, but something that was always part of my childhood," says Willison.
"Hāngī, boil ups and seafood. We were based up in Northland and the Māori community came together. It was quite cool to see boys who had a lot of experience and not so much experience, but doing all the food gathering and preparation, in terms of doing Hāngīs. So, it's the off field stuff too."
Between 2010 and 2013, Willison played five games in the Māori jersey scoring a try.
"The culture and the environment is a lot different to the professional rugby set up. There are a lot of classroom learnings in both environments but particularly in the Māori, we were learning about our people, our tikanga.
"Every morning we'd start off with a karakia and some waiata. Learning the haka was always a highlight, it can be quite daunting having to stand up in front of players that you admire and had only seen on TV and having to do the haka in front of them."
Willison's time with the Māori All Blacks is something that he will hold close forever.
"It's a hell of an experience. Certainly after that first tour/campaign, it's something that I never took for granted. You look at the teams now, and it's humbling to be able to watch and experience them play," he says.
"I just saw everything as such a privilege and, fortunately enough, you were contributing off the field and on the field, either going across that white line for a try or putting the effort in for your teammates."
Other former Māori All Blacks who have connections to Te Awamutu include Jono Gibbes, Deon Muir (both captained the team) and Ben May.