Paul Thomas

Polynesian All Blacks

Jul 11, 2015 | Canon Media Award 2016, Sports

Next week’s All Blacks-Samoa test in Apia will be, among other things, a celebration of the Samoan influence in New Zealand rugby.

While there’s much to celebrate, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Polynesian presence in our national game wasn’t always seen as cause for celebration.

Early on Samoan Kiwis were caught in a patronising, sometimes pejorative pincer movement: they were “head hunters”, more interested in bashing opponents than playing the game. Paradoxically, they were also “show ponies”, athletic and exciting when the going was good and things were in their favour, but lacking game sense and a waste of space when conditions and circumstances demanded a head down, bum up grind.

Then there was “white flight” – the supposed exodus from the game of white, middle-class New Zealanders scared of getting hurt by brown working-class New Zealanders. It was curious how much traction this notion gained given the New Zealand rugby community has historically prided itself on its physical approach. As that iconic Samoan New Zealander Tana Umaga put it, to hearty and widespread applause, “We’re not playing tiddly-winks here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hand-wringing over white flight was often accompanied by alarm over the “browning” of the All Blacks. A prominent sportswriter wondered if “all New Zealanders still feel the All Blacks are representative of New Zealand in general when half of them (sometimes more) are brown-skinned.” (The shameful reality that many New Zealanders hadn’t felt represented by All Black teams from which Maori were excluded in deference to South Africa’s racist ideology seemed to have escaped him.)

The UK rugby media also questioned the authenticity of All Black teams containing Polynesian players. During the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour, the notorious Stephen Jones asserted that “the All Blacks continue to steal the best talent from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga” and “are now an amalgam of four nations.” This, he declared, amounted to the “rape of the Pacific.”

It was always hard to tell whether the poaching accusation arose out of ignorance or malice: was the British media unaware of our immigration history and multicultural society or simply unwilling to let the facts get in the way of a smear?

It was odd that the English found it so hard to get their heads around the idea of immigrant communities producing more than their fair share of outstanding athletes seeing much the same happened there over much the same period. English track and field and boxing have flourished largely thanks to athletes of West Indian and African descent, and the days of an all-vanilla England soccer team are long gone.

Perhaps the Bundee Aki case will finally put an end to this fraudulent narrative. Last year Ireland recruited the Auckland-born and educated Chiefs midfielder via a contract that required him to sign away the right to play for New Zealand or Samoa and to make himself available for Ireland when he qualifies on residential grounds. Surely not even Albion at its most perfidious would argue there’s nothing wrong with that but for New Zealand to select, say, Auckland-born and educated George Moala undermines the integrity of international competition.

That these pernicious myths are losing their hold is testimony to the achievements and service of a line of great Samoan All Blacks, from Bryan Williams through Michael Jones to Julian Savea. Their class, on and off the field, has been the most powerful and effective rebuke to those who wilfully ignore the multicultural reality of contemporary New Zealand.

Take Keven Mealamu, now in his 17th year as a professional rugby player: the third All Black to play 100 tests; the first player to play 150 games for one Super Rugby franchise; the most capped Super Rugby player; and, most significantly of all, the holder of the record for the most first class games played by a New Zealander having overtaken Colin “Pinetree” Meads.

This was a passing of the baton that reflected the great shifts that have occurred in New Zealand society in recent decades: from socially conservative to socially liberal, from economically closed to economically open, from rural/provincial to urban, from monocultural to multicultural.

Meads, a King Country farmer, played for his province from 1955 to 1972 and for the All Blacks from 1957 to 1971, making 133 appearances in the black jersey. He has often been called “the greatest All Black” although many would argue that distinction now belongs to Richie McCaw. Intentionally or otherwise, Meads became a symbol and unofficial standard bearer for those who didn’t like the way rugby was evolving under professionalism.

In A Whole New Ball Game (2003) I wrote of Meads that, “like the mythical frontiersman of the American West, he came to personify his countrymen’s masculine ideal: practical, devoid of airs and graces, resilient, resolute, fair-minded but uncompromising and always willing to take up a physical challenge. He cleared a 200 acre block of hill country scrub; he carried a sheep under each arm; he took on the Springboks with a broken arm.”

But to generations discomforted by seismic social and economic change from which rugby, despite its strenuous efforts, was unable to quarantine itself, Meads also became a symbol of everything that used to be great about the game and the antithesis of everything that was now wrong with it. The elevation of Meads into a folk hero was essentially a lament for a time when rugby was the preserve of white adult blokes.

Mealamu, a Samoan New Zealander, an Aucklander, a willing mentor to young players, an approachable figure who greets the world with a grin, is the face of the contemporary game. (In Meads’s time, the All Blacks were dubbed “the Unsmiling Giants” by a UK journalist; it took a long time to shed that label.) But behind the sunny exterior is a warrior whose achievements attest to durability and fierce desire. You simply cannot perform at the elite level year after year unless the competitive fires burn within.

Tana Umaga’s accession to the All Black captaincy in 2004 was another symbol of the superseding of the old New Zealand - rural, taciturn, self-effacing, Pakeha - by the new - urban, self-expressive, flamboyant, multicultural. But Umaga’s success as a captain and ability to galvanise the public behind the All Blacks lay in his ability to bridge this divide. Appearances aside, he possessed the qualities and attributes that New Zealanders have associated with the All Blacks for 100 years - stoicism, physical and mental toughness, ruthlessness in pursuit of victory, graciousness when victory has been achieved.

This was Meads outlining his playing philosophy: “I’m no bloody angel. If I can gain the advantage by a bit of gamesmanship, I’ll be the first to do it. You play this game on a manly basis and you expect the opposition to try for the same sort of advantage.”

This was Umaga doing likewise: “I aimed to let an opponent know I was out there and get into his mind so that next time he’d have a look to see if I was coming. I’d body-check him on the way through or give him a little reminder that I was around so he knew that if he didn’t have his wits about him, he could get hit and hit hard. That’s the gamesmanship of rugby.”

Those who harp on about poaching also fail to grasp that these extraordinary rugby players are the product of a happy convergence of Samoan athleticism, power and natural talent and the New Zealand system and rugby knowhow. No-one personifies this process more than Umaga, a proud first generation Kiwi whose example ensures the days of Polynesian players hovering shyly in the background are gone for good.

As All Black coach, Sir Graham Henry elevated Umaga to the captaincy. Coaching Samoans and other Pacific Islanders as he ascended the coaching ladder in the world’s largest Polynesian city, Henry “came to understand that they were very respectful people and often that respectfulness stopped them saying things that perhaps they should say.

“Tana, however, was quite black and white on many things and made his opinion very clear. He didn’t pussyfoot around, he was pretty bold in his leadership, and he made statements which were all about standards. If he believed in something, he stood up and was very clear. There was no ambiguity.”

Fast forward a few years and this is Umaga speaking to the New Zealand Herald after being appointed Blues coach: “The most talented don’t necessarily make the best rugby players. Talent gets you noticed, it gets you a foot in the door, and what I have realised and what people will always tell you is that it’s work ethic which will get you to the next level. We will notice the talented players but we’ll test their work ethic, test their willingness to sacrifice for the team’s sake. Those are the things we’ll have to look for because those are the things that make successful teams.”

Not even the most hard-bitten member of the old school could believe there speaks a new age poser who thinks the game is all about self-expression rather than structure, individual flair rather than teamwork.

1987 World Cup-winning All Black captain David Kirk had a nice take on what the (predominantly Samoan) Polynesian dimension has added to New Zealand rugby: “International teams divide into two strands – the Latin temperament and the Anglo-Saxon. New Zealand is the only team that benefits from the Anglo-Saxon temperament enlivened and enriched by the Polynesian strand. The Polynesian strand in our national psyche lifts us – the more elusive running, the side step, the joie de vivre.”

Perhaps the All Blacks’ record is the best measure of the Pacific Islands influence. When the game went professional in 1996, there was an expectation that the All Blacks’ traditional superiority would be eroded. They’d always been professional in every respect except remuneration, so this line of thinking went, but now everyone would be on the same footing.

In fact, the All Blacks have widened the gap on the chasing pack. In the amateur era their success rate was 11% better than the second most successful team, South Africa. It’s now 31% better. Historically, the All Blacks’ success rate has been around 76%; in the last decade it has pushed up towards 90%.

Any attempt to identify the drivers of this improvement must acknowledge the Polynesian factor. At the very least, it can be said that the increased Polynesian presence hasn’t handicapped the All Blacks; a less tentative assumption would be that Polynesian players have given the All Blacks another, potent dimension.

Or as Henry put it: “The Polynesian rugby player is a very important part of the All Black machine.”