In a year that’s been characterised as much by what’s gone wrong as what’s gone right, fans, players and administrators will undoubtedly be treated to a rugby feast of the highest order in Hamilton that should leave everyone with smiles on their faces as the country buckles down for the summer.
Putting the likely highs of the coming weekend aside for one moment, there was a very real chance that the Maori representative side weren’t going to take the field at all this year.
There was a very real chance that the Maori representative side weren’t going to take the field at all this year.
Before Covid disrupted the season, the Maori All Blacks had a handful of games scheduled against the likes of Fiji and Russia.
The global pandemic threw 2020 into disarray, however, and as the days and weeks ticked by, New Zealand Rugby naturally prioritised getting the All Blacks up and running before focus fell on the nation’s other representative teams.
There were rumours that the All Blacks were going to take on Moana Pasifika – but those plans would have undoubtedly fallen through when the Rugby Championship was shifted from New Zealand to Australia.
It’s therefore no major surprise that that re-invented clash – with the All Blacks replaced by New Zealand Maori – wasn’t announced until November 12.
Without Saturday’s fixture, 2020 would have marked the first year since 2011 that the Maori All Blacks hadn’t played a match.
Since then, they’ve squared off with all manner of teams, including the United States, Canada, Brazil and Chile from the Americas, Fiji and Japan from the Asia-Pacific region and of course, the British and Irish Lions when they came to New Zealand in 2017.
2020 has of course already been a troubling year – not just for professional sports – but it would been a shame if the Maori All Blacks hadn’t been able to play given the side’s importance and heritage.
Head coach Clayton McMillan acknowledged as much earlier this year when the entire rugby calendar was still very much up in the air.
“The Maori All Blacks are a team that has a really proud legacy,” he told The XV. “Some of New Zealand’s greatest players have been of Maori descent, and some of them have publicly said that their highest honour was putting on the Maori All Black jersey.”
Some of New Zealand’s greatest players have been of Maori descent, and some of them have publicly said that their highest honour was putting on the Maori All Black jersey.
Maori All Blacks coach Clayton McMillan
That’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by players across the country, all of whom say pulling on the famous jersey builds their sense of mana, a Maori concept loosely translated to pride or respect.
Bryn Hall played his first game for the Maori All Blacks when the Lions came to town in 2017. He’s played in four further matches for the side since and this year marks his fifth campaign.
“I’ve always loved watching Maori rugby, and to get a chance to do that and get an understanding of what it is to be in that team, it’s really special,” Hall told The XV.
“You get a great understanding of what it is to be a Maori player – every time we get in camp, there’s a new story that’s told. You get a great understanding of where you come from.
“It’s about more than just rugby. It’s about having a deeper meaning and an understanding of what it is to be Maori.”
While, at 28, Hall’s no spring chicken, his experience in professional rugby and with the Maori All Blacks still pales in comparison to that of Liam Messam, whose first game for the side came in 2006.
He also captained the team during their historic centenary series in 2010, when the Maori recorded narrow wins over both Ireland and England, and started at the back of the scrum in the 2017 Lions game in Rotorua – then backed up for the Chiefs just three days later.
“The Maori All Blacks are my favourite team to play for,” Messam told The XV. “It was an awesome experience, that Lions series.
“Rotorua is my hometown and getting to play for the Maori against the Lions in front of that home crowd was just something else. There was a lot of pressure on us because of what had happened before [in 2005, when New Zealand Maori scored an historic 19-13 win].”
The Maori All Blacks are my favourite team to play for.
Twelve years later, there was no repeat, the Lions controlling the game expertly at Rotorua International Stadium to run out 32-10 winners.
Having returned home from France to represent Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup, Saturday’s match could very well be 36-year-old Messam’s final game of professional rugby – and there’s probably no better way to sign off a career.
“Once this game’s finished, I’ll sit down and reflect on what’s been and what’s ahead,” the 179-cap Chief said, having been named to start at No8.
“I’m just taking every day as it comes and whatever will be, will be.”
For Hall, there should be plenty more to come, however.
“Every campaign that we have, it’s something different,” he said. “I just get an insight to something new and to something different because I love being Maori and unfortunately, the European side’s been probably the more dominant side of my family.
“Every time I get the chance to go back and to hear stories and spend time with the boys, I love it – I wish tours were longer so we’d get to spend a little bit more time on our heritage and that sort of thing.”
While the Maori All Blacks’ 2020 schedule was disrupted due to the pandemic, questions were raised pre-Covid around how the team would continue to fit into the calendar, given New Zealand Rugby’s reveal of a new All Blacks XV – a second representative side that would sit one tier beneath the All Blacks.
Two or three fixtures a season has become the standard for the Maori team in recent years but when the Junior All Blacks (the All Blacks XV by a different name) were introduced in the mid-2000s, matches for the Maori were at a premium.
The Junior All Blacks were disbanded after 2009, however, paving the way for the Maori to effectively sit as NZ’s second side. The planned reinstatement of the NZ ‘A’ team hasn’t ruffled the feathers of men like McMillan and Hall, though.
“We’re thinking of the All Blacks XV as another opportunity for people to get exposure at the highest levels of the game,” McMillan said. “If it helps with the retention of some of our best talent, that’s a really good thing.”
While the Maori All Blacks’ matches were set to be played during the middle-year test season, the All Blacks XV’s matches had been arranged for the end of the year.
“I think there’s an opportunity for players to do both [play for both teams],” said McMillan.
“I think the All Black brand is known globally, it’s a really powerful brand and rightly so, it’s been earned over a century of hard work and success. People want to see that brand as often as possible and I don’t think it’s any secret that they generate a significant amount of money, that ultimately gets filtered back down to the grassroots level of the game.
“That’s hugely important and it’s been highlighted in spades [in 2020], how all levels of the game are impacted when we aren’t operating at that very top level as often as we would like.”
I always had sights set on the Maori All Blacks from when I was a young age.
That means that while the All Blacks XV may tackle the massive financial markets, the Maori All Blacks can continue to run in-bound tours, or travel to less traditional rugby locales.
“I always had sights set on the Maori All Blacks from when I was a young age,” Dixon told The XV. “I loved watching them play and I loved the culture and love the language and enjoyed every moment, especially playing the Lions in 2017.
“But it was also really cool playing some tests in all sorts of different places, like America, going over to Leicester – I think we played a game in Doncaster, somewhere up north. It was a terrible place in some ways, it was so dark and cold but it was still cool.
“You get to go to places like that with a really good bunch of boys. It was a little bit more laid back than the All Blacks… Well, a lot more laid back. Still, you had to play good rugby but we had fun off the pitch too – the All Blacks don’t get to play in Doncaster or in minus 4 degrees temperatures against Canada in Oxford.”
“We have certainly travelled the globe in the last two or three years, been to some interesting places, but the important thing for the Maori All Blacks is that we stay current and we remain an important team in New Zealand rugby,” said McMillan.
“Any opportunity to put the jersey on and go and showcase our talents, and represent not just Maori people, but people of New Zealand across the world is an opportunity that we relish.
“Going to some of those areas like South America, Chile, Canada, emerging nations, developing nations, that’s been really good. We’re doing our part in helping grow the game globally.”
Any opportunity to put the jersey on and go and showcase our talents, and represent not just Maori people, but people of New Zealand across the world is an opportunity that we relish.
The Coronavirus has prevented the Maori All Blacks from showcasing their talent and culture around the world this year, but the side is still helping to break new ground and on Saturday will become the first opposition for a team that are looming as Super Rugby’s newest side.
Moana Pasifika are set to join the 10 New Zealand and Australian Super clubs in 2022 – alongside a Fijian side – to form a 12-team competition. Saturday’s fixture presents fans their first opportunity to witness the combined might of the Pacific Islands since a composite side toured Europe in 2008.
It’s fitting that the Maori All Blacks are their opposition, given the team’s strong links to Pasifika culture and the important role they play in taking New Zealand’s indigenous culture to the world.
And while Saturday’s game will be historic, it also looms as an exceptional match of rugby – and the perfect way to farewell the 2020 season.