(Carlin Valenti, Fuseworks) When Matt Te Pou told former Maori All Blacks and former All Blacks he had coached about what was happening at Waka Maori during Rugby World Cup 2011, everyone he spoke to said they will be there.
For Te Pou, the longest serving Maori All Black coach (1995-2006), the exhibition of Maori rugby at Waka Maori is important. He says it was vital to ensure Maori rugby has a strong presence during RWC2011.
“When I first started coaching at the top level I saw a survey showing, in what was then Super 12, 30 percent of players were Maori – from a Maori population of 14 percent within New Zealand’s total population. We have always over-performed for this country in rugby.”
He says New Zealanders are used to seeing Maori with ball in hand, but for those outside this country Maori in rugby is a phenomenon.
Just look at how many Maori players there are in other national teams. You will find Maori in the English team, the Italian and the Australian teams, Japanese and Fijian teams and probably more.”
Te Pou puts the attraction for rugby down to a cultural fit evident since the formation of the first Maori rugby team in 1888.
“I think the code of rugby in peace time is as close as we can get to the code of war and Maori respond to that. I served in Vietnam and rugby has all of the aspects of training for war. It is all about the ball or the object, and keeping the ball. It is about the physicality, hardening up, working for a collective outcome and making the right decisions – anyone can make a decision but can they make the right decision under pressure? In rugby, as in war, the decisions you make are the difference between winning and losing.”
He says Maori rugby has been on a big journey since the early 1888 New Zealand Native team toured the ‘Home Nations’. More recently there has been a drive to lift the stature of Maori rugby from playing low level provincial opposition to being given the opportunity to play serious international competition.
“Years ago I asked my team manager Colin Meads how he thought we should go about lifting the quality of opposition the Maori All Blacks faced. That great All Black said there was only one way and that was to win every game. So that became our goal and we reshaped how we did things so we could achieve that purpose.”
A few things had to change. Te Pou says when he first started coaching the Maori All Blacks he was told Maori rugby didn’t need a game plan because when the going got tough they could count on their flair.
“Maybe it was because my career until then had been in the New Zealand Army where I was a Regimental Sergeant Major, but the idea of going into an operation without a game plan didn’t sit well. We can have flair but also have a plan.”
And the results came. They have now played and beaten England, Argentina, Scotland and Fiji. They also beat England A in the final of the Churchill Cup and most importantly in 2005 beat the touring British and Irish Lions.
“We also shocked the Aussies.”
“If you think about international rugby there are always four top teams – the All Blacks will be one of them, the Springboks will be another and the Lions are always in the top three. The fourth spot is sometimes taken by Australia, sometimes by England, sometimes by the French. Today we would have to include the Maori All Blacks as being competitive enough at the international level to hold that fourth place in the world from time to time.”
Te Pou says when international visitors and New Zealanders go to Waka Maori on the waterfront in Auckland there will be former players such as Dion Muir, one of the captains of his coaching era; Rhys Duggan; legends Marty Holah, Jim Coe, Hika Reid; and current players such as Tanerau Latimer. Tony Marsh played for the French and speaks fluent French, he will be there. There will be Ron Cribb, Slade MacFarlane, Glen Jackson, Mark Mayerhofler and many more.
He says visitors will be able to talk to these and other known players and have their picture taken and maybe sit down and have a cup of tea with them.
“I believe the waka will become the meeting point where former players will gather to see who is around from their playing days so they can catch up.”
Te Pou says Maoridom has huge thanks to give Ngati Whatua for having the vision and the courage to have this Waka Maori idea and then bring it to realisation.
“There are games on all around the country but as teams get knocked out, the cup moves to Auckland. As tangata whenua Ngati Whatua have given all Maori an opportunity to showcase our people, our land, showcase our culture, te reo and, through Waka Maori, the Maori Rugby exhibition.
“All iwi through whakapapa will be involved in the Maori Rugby Exhibition because the players carry the whakapapa of the different iwi.”
Te Pou says there are a lot of events at Waka Maori but his focus is about Maori rugby and the exhibition that will show the story of the journey of Maori rugby. Around 80,000 international visitors are expected for RWC2011 and they will have the opportunity to learn something about this special history.