Warrior courage, Spiro Zavos

Against the Odds: Matt Te Pou and Maori Rugby
Matt Te Pou and Matt McIlraith
Huia, $40.00,
ISBN 1869692519

In the early winter of 1952 a frisson spread around the campus of St Patrick’s College, Silverstream: a brilliant young Maori first five-eighths was trying out for the elite 3A rugby side. The youngster, Jimmy Taitoko, did not disappoint. He was so outstanding with his sharp running, snappy passing and prodigious line-kicking that he was promoted to the First XV. He was responsible for several unbeaten years for Silverstream against the finest college sides in New Zealand.

Taitoko went on to play splendidly for Wellington and Canterbury. He starred in the first final trial to select the 1963 All Blacks to tour Europe. His highest achievement in rugby came in 1956 when he was a member of the Maori side thrashed by the Springboks. That same year a New Zealand university side famously defeated the Springboks at Athletic Park.

In 1956 it looked certain that the New Zealand university concept would flourish and become an integral part of the New Zealand game. Maori rugby, though, and its potential stars like Taitoko, seemed doomed to become an exotic rather than a perennial part of New Zealand rugby. Maori teams would occasionally be trotted out to fill out the itinerary of a touring team. But with the end of real tours in the late 1980s, the future of Maori rugby, aside from its sideshow aspects, looked dismal.

Against the Odds, which was written by Matt Te Pou with experienced rugby journalist Matt McIlraith, argues that he is one of the most influential Maori figures in New Zealand rugby. He created the modern New Zealand Maori rugby side. While he was making this great contribution to New Zealand and, especially, Maori life, New Zealand university rugby slipped into the backwaters of amateur rugby. It was, as the biography documents in an interesting and provocative way, Te Pou’s successful stint as coach of the New Zealand Maori side throughout the professional era from 1996 to the spectacular defeat of the British and Irish Lions at Hamilton in 2005, that entrenched the New Zealand Maori team as a national treasure of New Zealand rugby. And world rugby, if the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) has the gumption to exploit the treasure appropriately.

A close reading of this book confirms the validity of the thesis. Te Pou has been the inevitable and most important begetter of the New Zealand Maori team’s renaissance. The biography starts with a detailed and emotionally-charged chapter on the inspirational 19-13 victory against the Lions. It has a splendid and moving evocation of Te Pou’s childhood in Whakatane and the influence on his upbringing of the women of the Tuhoe tribe, especially his grandmother, Makuini, who was one of the first Maori educated in the “English system”. There is his experience as an army sergeant in Vietnam and his 23 years in the New Zealand Army. On his retirement from the army, he started his coaching career with the Whakatane Marist club. In the time-honoured New Zealand tradition he worked his way up the ladder to the Bay of Plenty representative side and, not without some setbacks, finally to the New Zealand Maori team.

Looking back on his life and career he seemed to be destined to coach the New Zealand Maori side, and to be successful in its rebirth as a major player in international rugby. Part of the enchantment of the biography, however, is following the trajectory of Te Pou’s career, which had its setbacks (and lessons learnt) before the final, glorious match against the Lions. I was there that night. The Maori played like inspired men. The night air, so misty and mysterious, and a crowd that willed the Maori to win, gave the occasion a memorable quality that stayed with those of us lucky enough to be there as we trudged over the wet, muddy field after the game, sharing the triumph with thousands of other New Zealanders.

Like all great sports coaches, Te Pou, who seems to be a well-organised man of quiet humour with deep but controlled passions, was a life coach as well as a rugby coach. He was determined to produce good people, as well as a great team. The discipline and meticulous administration he learned in the army was brought to his coaching methods. Most importantly he decided that the foundation of his Maori side was to be Maoritanga. His players were immersed in Maori culture. The side under his guidance became a Maori icon. It was this Maori quality that gave his team its warrior courage, its bravery, its will to win, its flair and wit, and its respect for all its opponents and for the inclusive ethic of rugby.

Te Pou’s Maori side created such a superlative record that one wonders if he should have been (or still might be) used in some capacity with the All Blacks. The side won 29 matches against strong opposition like Argentina, the Waratahs and the Lions, and lost only five matches, to sides like the Wallabies, the New Zealand Barbarians and England. But it was the spirit of the New Zealand Maori side, the passion with which it played and the mana it created that were Te Pou’s greatest achievement. Carlos Spencer, who came on in the second half against the Lions and created the win, told reporters that his greatest pleasure in rugby, greater even than playing for the All Blacks, was playing for Te Pou’s New Zealand Maori side.

Where to now for New Zealand Maori rugby? Te Pou has a last chapter, “Maori Rugby in the 21st Century”, that is distinctly pessimistic. After the 2005 triumph against the Lions, the New Zealand Maori side was not seen in New Zealand in 2006. It won’t be seen in New Zealand in 2007, either. Te Pou is adamant, and he is right, that this iconic side should play at least one major match in New Zealand a year. It is committed to the annual Churchill Cup, a tournament involving Canada, the USA and England A each year. But the game in New Zealand should be the centrepiece of the season for the New Zealand Maori.

More than this is needed, however. The NZRU should create a four-yearly tour to a different rugby nation, so each generation of great Maori players can be involved. In 1888/9 the Natives (with a couple of Pakeha) made the toughest and longest rugby tour ever mounted to New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain. This, the mother of all rugby tours, should be commemorated by regular New Zealand Maori tours to one of these places.

I would start this four-yearly tour cycle with an international against the host nation as the centrepiece, with South Africa, a rugby nation which the New Zealand Maori has not toured. Such a pioneering tour, in, say, 2009, 120 years after the pioneering tour of the Natives, would be a homage to all the great Maori players: Jimmy  Mills, George Nepia, Vince Bevan, Johnny Smith, Tiny Hill, Mac Herewini and, perhaps, Jimmy Taitoko, who could not tour South Africa with the All Blacks before 1976. The manager for such an historic tour would have to be Matt Te Pou: man, soldier, rugby person and leader of his people, who against the odds has triumphed in all aspects of his life.


Spiro Zavos is a Sydney reviewer.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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