Anyone painting Sunday’s rugby match at BMO Field between Canada and the Maori All Blacks of New Zealand as a friendly will be doing a disservice to the visitors’ culture and history.
Between tribal wars and struggles with what the Maori term the pakeha (New Zealanders of European origin), the Maori have long prided themselves on their warrior-like mentality, and though the battlefield has now been replaced with a lush green playing surface, their appetite for competition has hardly been sated. Even in rugby-crazed New Zealand, the Maori, who make up 15.4 per cent of the country’s population, enjoy the sport of rugby with almost unparalleled passion.
“I think it’s mainly because it’s not only a physical, but it’s also a very skillful game and, of course, Maori come from a background of being warriors and its physicality is something that suits them,” former Maori coach and player Jim Love says. “But more importantly it’s something that also gives them a lot of mana [pride, status], especially with their families.”
Family and togetherness play a vital part in the Maori way of life and their culture, which is “very collective, very tribal,” according to former Maori coach Matt Te Pou, who won 35 of his 40 games in charge, including a famous 19-13 upset of the British & Irish Lions in 2005.
And Love, who helped found the world’s only full-time, dedicated rugby academy in 1999 in Rotorua, says that that group mentality plays a large role in why so many Maori eschew individual sports, such as golf, in favour of the oval-ball game, with 23 per cent of 150,000 registered players in New Zealand claiming Maori heritage.
“Rugby is all about whanau [family] … and when we talk about family we come together always, we feel strong; we feel safe when we’re in numbers and that’s why a lot of Maori play team sports,” Love says. “We don’t like individual games because we like to be around our friends and we like to work together as a unit, and it’s part of our background.”
The background of the current crop of Maori players is no less family-oriented, in some cases enjoying long lines of New Zealand rugby heritage. Flanker Luke Braid, of the Ngati Tumutumu tribe, could make his Maori debut on Sunday and is excited at the prospect of carrying on his family’s proud tradition in the sport at international level, with both his father and brother having played for the All Blacks.
“I’ve never worn the All Black jersey,” he says, “but I think the Maori jersey is pretty personal because you’re representing your iwi, or your tribe.”
However, teammate Zac Guildford, who like Braid has also yet to play for the Maori All Blacks, has achieved the ultimate in New Zealand rugby, knowing full well the pride that comes with pulling on the famed All Black jersey having played in 10 Tests as a full New Zealand international. Guildford was also part of the Rugby World Cup-winning squad in 2011, scoring four tries in the All Blacks’ final group game, a 79-15 demolition of Canada, which also turned out to be his only contest in the tournament, as he was injured in the very next training session.
Still, given the pressure on New Zealand to win in front of its home fans and end a 24-year World Cup victory drought, Guildford was just happy to be a part of such a historic occasion.
“We sort of had the chokers [tag] on us,” he said of years of being prohibitive favourites, “… and I think if we didn’t win it I probably wouldn’t be showing my face around.”
Though he expects a completely different contest against Canada on Sunday than the last time he played them, given that New Zealanders are to rugby as Brazilians are to soccer and Canadians are to hockey, Guildford says the onus is on him and his teammates to play an expansive game of rugby and showcase the sport to an emerging market.
“I guess the rest of the world look up to us in terms of how we play rugby and the style we play and we are world champions,” he says. “But it would be great to show Canada and the rest of the world a great brand of rugby and that’s what we aim to do, but I think the main thing is that we’re here to win.”