There’s no symbol dearer to New Zealand’s vision of itself as a multicultural nation than the All Blacks. A world-beating sporting juggernaut drawn from across the country’s ethnic communities, the national rugby team has always carried a proudly Maori influence – from its succession of indigenous national captains to the traditional haka dance performed before each match.
But like most national myths, the notion of the team as a paragon of colour-blindness doesn’t quite bear scrutiny. Recent calls for an apology to Maori players who were excluded from tours to Apartheid South Africa on racial grounds have highlighted a shameful facet of the game’s history.
For decades, South Africa insisted that touring All Blacks sides leave behind their Maori players, as the notion of racially mixed teams was anathema to the Apartheid government. New Zealand acceded to the demands in 1928, 1949 and 1960, while in 1970 two players of Polynesian extraction were permitted to tour as “honorary whites”.
It’s a reflection of the game’s importance in New Zealand that rugby links with South Africa have historically been at the root of some of its greatest dramas. In 1981, a long, contentious tour by the South Africans divided the nation, provoking a mass protest movement whose efforts to disrupt the fixtures resulted in violent clashes with police and fans. Five years earlier, New Zealand’s continued sporting contact with the republic marred the Montréal Olympics after triggering a mass boycott by other African nations.
Both incidents left their scars, but the exclusion of Maori players had been largely scrubbed from the national memory until this year, the 100th anniversary of the naming of the first representative Maori rugby team. For many former players and their descendants for whom the shabby treatment still rankled, the milestone marked an opportune moment to atone. The New Zealand Rugby Union initially balked, claiming that revisiting the issue would detract from the anniversary celebrations. But after South Africa’s sports minister officially apologised, that position became untenable. This month, the NZRU finally tendered a belated but fulsome apology to the affected players, their families, the Maori community – and “New Zealand as a whole, for the division that rugby’s contact with South Africa caused across the country over many years”.
Maori affairs minister Dr Pita Sharples appreciates the apology. “The current discussion is part of a healing process, and I think the most important point is that we emerge from it stronger and more united,” he says. Focus can now shift to the more pressing headaches being thrown up by the South Africans, shaping up as the team to beat at next year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.