An apology is in order

Jock Hobbs – where are you?

An apology is in order for the families of Maori rugby players excluded from All Black tours to South Africa for nearly 50 years in deference to that country’s racially prejudiced policies.

It’s a chapter of shame in rugby history that for the period 1928 to 1970 our rugby hierarchy thought more of the racist sensitivities of white South African political leaders than the sensitivities of Maori rugby players or All Black rugby sovereignty. The All Black teams that toured South Africa in this period were all-white because South African authorities would have been “embarrassed” at the participation of Maori players. They worried it would cause blacks to agitate for the chance to play for South African national teams and who knew where it would end – they might even insist on the right to vote. So New Zealand rugby deferred to racist politics, sold out on sporting principles and betrayed Maori rugby players and the entire Maori community. This shameless behaviour would have continued for many more years had it been left to the ossified attitudes which governed rugby through the last century.

Last year writer Malcolm Mulholland wrote to the rugby union suggesting an apology after finding the exclusions were still a burning issue for many Maori players and their families. Mulholland was researching the history of Maori rugby for his book Under the Maori moon. But despite the obvious hurt still felt by the families of those barred on the basis of race the rugby union says now is not the time to focus on “political issues that happened in the past”.

What claptrap. If not now then when? 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the official Maori All Blacks. A “New Zealand Natives” team toured the British Isles in 1888/89 and this team passed on the haka and their black shirts to future New Zealand teams but it wasn’t till 1910 that the Maori All Blacks were officially constituted as part of New Zealand rugby.

But they didn’t have a sporting chance. When the South African regime made it known in 1928 that Maori players were unacceptable rugby great George Nepia was told he would not be selected to tour and neither would other Maori players be eligible to represent the country.

Maori players were again counted out in 1948 and 1960 although by this time a protest coalition had developed under the umbrella CABTA (Citizens All Black Tour Association) which organised demonstrations around the country under the slogan “No Maoris – No Tour.”

The rugby union found its own way of rationalising these racist decisions. It said it would be unfair to put Maori players into awkward situations in South Africa when they weren’t welcome.

It wasn’t till 1967 that an All Black tour to the country was cancelled when South Africa again said it didn’t want Maori players. If it was left to its own devices the leaders of our national sport would have insisted on touring but the Holyoake National government told our rugby leaders “enough” and the tour was cancelled.

Three years later South Africa backed down and allowed four Maori and Pacific players to tour – including 19 year old Samoan winger Bryan Williams who was the hugely popular “golden boy” of that tour.

But the issue had moved on to protests about apartheid in South Africa and the rugby union continued to march out of step with the rest of the world by welcoming all-white Springbok rugby teams to New Zealand when most of the world was cutting ties with the regime as part of an international boycott.

An apology won’t change the past but it would be significant for the families of those wronged on the basis of race. There is no better time than this 100th anniversary year to acknowledge the sins in rugby’s Maori history.

The head of the rugby union’s Maori Rugby Board Wayne Peters is reported as saying the board decided it was more important in the centenary year of Maori Rugby to focus on celebrations rather than political issues from the past which would never occur today.  But where is the voice of the rugby union in all this? It wasn’t Maori rugby which made the decision to exclude brown players from touring teams to South Africa.

So come on Jock Hobbs. You chair the NZRU. Step out of the shadow of the Maori board and give us a lesson in leadership – your predecessors made shameful decisions which still carry hurt.

Show some mongrel and say sorry.