The Maori Rugby Culture in New Zealand

7s Eagle Katrinka Blunt and her mom with members of the Waitangi RFC at the Whangarei 7s.

By Jack Magullian


New Zealand is going through another of its golden ages of rugby. This is the era of Cullen and Lomu, Blackadder and Mehrtens. The Kiwi Sevens team is unbeatable, and the Black Ferns the world’s dominant women’s team. The culture of rugby permeates every aspect of New Zealand life. Rugby dominates the sports media, influences elections and provokes gossip. It is the one topic that you can safely use in any situation.
When I look back at my playing career with Villanova and Fairleigh Dickinson in the1970s, I realize now how much different my career would have been if I was brought up in New Zealand. There are great similarities between Yank and Kiwi attitudes and values. We speak the same language and watch the same shows. But, when it comes to rugby, there’s a rift as big as the Pacific Ocean.
I now admit that I don’t know how to pass the ball. Even though I practice regularly and sometimes feel like an NFL quarterback when the ball spirals from my hands, I still draw the occasional laugh from the sidelines. I know what they’re saying, I’ve heard it so many times. They don’t say, “He throws like a girl.” That would insult the local women who pass the ball just like the men.
They say, “He passes like an American.” Could they be thinking of me the same way that I think of them when they try to dribble a basketball behind their back?
I moved here a couple of years ago; a 45 year-old New Jerseyite who had lived most of his life in the shadow of New York City. New Zealand has always held a special fascination for me: it’s remoteness and isolation drew me here, and its enchanted reputation has convinced me that it contains a portal to ancient wisdom. The mountains grow directly out of the South Pacific Ocean and rise to a height that presides over an area from Antarctica to India. The huge volcanoes dominate the North Island and conceal long-forgotten, misty valleys; the secret home of the world’s most unique and unusual creatures and vegetation. The people native to this land are the Maoris; descendants of Polynesians who landed here over a thousand years ago.
The Maoris are survivors from a time of legend and mythology. They espouse the wisdom of the generations, unencumbered by European principles and restraints. Their education is from the surreal, volcanic landscape, and from the sea; the eternal source of sustenance and adventure. Many generations ago they sailed away from their human relatives and began a parallel evolution in splendid isolation. In many ways they became as unique and specialized as the endemic species around them.
It was the Maoris who recruited me from the sidelines to be a part of their rugby club.
At first they thought I was a pakeha. That’s a Maori term for the descendants of New Zealand’s colonists and the dominant cultural group in the country. When they found out I was American, they were intrigued.
They wanted to know everything about America: Does everyone carry a gun, what do your mates think about the Super 12, is America bursting with pride over winning the America’s Cup, is Jonah going to play in the NFL next year? Our curiosities about each other gradually developed into trust and eventually I was asked to be a manager and a member of the “panel” that runs the team.
There’s much more to Maori rugby than the haka. It’s just one of many island traditions that have made their way into everyday New Zealand rugby. Maori history is filled with conflicts and battles. Only a few generations ago the losers of a confrontation would have ended up as dinner. Eventually good sense prevailed and all-out battles gave way to rituals. The haka was developed to instill fear in enemies. Two sides could scare the heck out of each other and then decide to make peace rather than face certain death.
Before there were Europeans, there were only Maoris. In response to the rugged terrain they lived in tribal and sub-tribal groups and seemed to be constantly at war. The Maori became masters of battle tactics. They used their considerable knowledge of warfare to deal with the threat of colonization and brought along an unexpected expertise in the art of negotiation.
The Treaty of Waitangi is the benchmark document between an indigenous population and a conquering world power. Unlike many of their contemporaries who were unable to adjust, the Maoris were able to adapt many European concepts and, in many cases, improve upon them.
After the wars with England had ended in the late eighteenth century and Maoris and the pakehas were beginning to find some common interests, and the new sport of rugby was the rage. The pakehas brought the sport from the British Isles and the teams of Scots, Irish, Welsh and English often played for the glory of the “old country.”
The Maoris probably watched from the sidelines, took a few notes, made some calculations and decided that rugby was a game at which they could excel. So the Maoris threw their hat in the ring, gained the respect and admiration of the pakehas, and asserted their influence on the development of world rugby.
My club is Waitangi of the Northland Division. Ninety percent of my teammates are Maori and most are closely related.
With my East Coast accent, I probably sound to them like Crocodile Dundee sounds to a New Yorker. At first I felt like an anthropologist studying a native culture but then I realized that they were studying me. There have been days that I can tell you exactly how Tom O’Hagen felt in the company of the Corleone family.
I’ve seen it all in the past year... mostly flash rugby, Maori style. Small, speedy packs and big, hard-hitting wingers are typical. Precision passing between backs and forwards is a Maori trademark.
It amazes me that the players are so ready to fill in anywhere they are needed. Watch the All Blacks and when you see Christian Cullen joining a maul or Todd Blackadder attacking from the wing, think Maori.
The kids have been helping me with my passing skills lately. We always start with a pass around and everyone is welcome. We then move into ball-handling/agility drills, with emphasis on team movements. Anyone can be asked by the coaches to jump in and help out. That includes teenagers and supporters.
The training technique goes back to when everyone had to he ready if there was a threat. When a battle was imminent it was often fight or die. In such a hostile environment, teenagers and old men had to be prepared to join the warriors and confidently fill in when needed.
The young men are called ‘boy” until they have established an identity on the rugby pitch. It’s a rite of passage that recalls the not too distant past. It’s a reminder to the young men that they are no longer ‘babv’ and that their next step will be adulthood.
It’s ideal for the a rugby club because it establishes a hierarchy early on, provides a constant stream of fit replacements and gives maximum attention and exposure to the young player. Some of the senior players still use the term “boy” with each other as a sign of the many years that they have played together.
The Waitangi Rugby Club trains on the grounds of the Waitangi Marae (meeting place) which is one of the most sacred of all places to the Maori. Here the great chiefs, led by Hone Hike and Kawiti, made the famous treaty with the English that guaranteed the future. Our games are often preceded by a prayer (Maoris are Christians) by a kaumatua (elder) and ended with a hongi (a bonding touching of noses).
Our trainer doubles as a spiritual healer.
My team-mates are students of the earth and the game. They seem to possess a special knowledge of all things natural and have little appreciation for modern conveniences. They play a fast and often brutal game.
They can get by without running water and electricity and occasionally get their complete diet from the ocean or the forests. All of them can boot a drop-goal on the run from thirty-five meters and most of them could hike the entire Appalachian Trail barefoot!
Maoris are typical foreigners in how they feel about Americans. Television has given the world a jaded view of American life. Satires and pastimes occupy a disproportionate amount of the information flow and often become the basis of reality in New Zealand. To them typical American families are the Bunkers, the Bundys and the Huxtables; the largest political parties are the Democrats, Republicans and the Klan; and the average American probably watches four hours of NASCAR a week.
The Waitangi Rugby Club has started its 2001 campaign with a win over highly regarded Kaikohe and a respectable outing against powerhouse Kerkeri.
This year there’s an American on the panel whose secret passion is to throw the perfect pass. He’s going to stay in the background and let the kids teach him so that no one says, “He must be an American.”
And if they do a good job, he’ll teach them how to dribble a basketball between their legs and behind their backs so that no American says, “They must be from New Zealand.”
Some nights when it’s getting late, I look out across the Pacific Ocean and can trace the outline of a jumbo jet against the backdrop of the Southern Cross.
“More tourists,” I think. I wonder if they play rugby. Wait until they meet the Maori.

About the Author: Jack Magullian was a flanker and goal kicker for Villanova University from 1973-76. He then played and served as unofficial coach for Fairleigh Dickinson University from 1978-80, while obtaining his MBA.
Jack was president of Magullian Fuel Oil (NJ), a third generation, family heating oil distributorship, until April 1997. Since then he has served as an expert witness/consultant to the oil industry; working for insurance companies and law firms, primarily through the mail. He has also written technical articles and position pieces for the national oil industry publication. He returns to the US only to testify or to inspect incident sites.
When not working or doing something with the rugby club, he spends most of his time hiking in the mountains. Forty-five and single, Magullian sent us this biographical data from Bennington, VT, while hiking the Long Trail to the Canadian Border – “250 miles to go.” He’s hiked over the entire Appalachian Trail and met the Gawronski’s (trail names, Rocky and Bullwinkle), who were featured in this publication detailing their 1999 hike.
His other passion is English darts. He was a nationally ranked player until 1986 when he had back surgery. Since 1984 he has been a regular contributor to Bull’s Eye News (Columbus, Ohio) and Darts World (London) and has written numerous cover stories, features, player profiles and match reports.