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Written By: Mark Janzen
For a moment, all of BC Place will stand still. Nary a word or a cough, nor, likely, even an audible exhale will be heard.
Then, the first few words of the famed Timatanga will be bellowed.
From there, the haka of the Maori All Blacks will enrapture those on the pitch as well as those in the stands. For the players on the Maori All Blacks team, this might just be their pinnacle of personal and familial pride. Indeed, the highest distinction remains a cap with New Zealand’s All Blacks, but there’s something different about donning the original black jersey of the Maori side – something that makes the spine shiver, something about a team bonded by blood.
It’s been said in pithy terms in varying other contexts before, but for the Maori All Blacks – a team that exclusively features players with documented Maori descent – rugby is more than a game. For the Maoris it’s an expression of culture and a sporting manifestation of each player’s identity.
“We have a huge amount of responsibility to make sure that when we perform, we’re not only performing for ourselves, but also our family and the legacy of the Maori jersey,” says Clayton McMillan, who was recently named the Maori All Blacks head coach. “It’s something that’s dear to our hearts and something we take pretty seriously, even though it is just a game at the end of the day.”
For the Maoris, it all started in 1888. The national Maori-based side. The pregame haka. The black jerseys. The silver fern. And the deep intertwining of Maori culture and global-scale rugby.
On June 23 of that year, the New Zealand Natives, as they were called then, before becoming the New Zealand Maori and eventually, in 2012, the Maori All Blacks, beat New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay team. The Natives, who were led by Joseph Warbrick, won 5-0. Later that year, the same Maori-centric team earned its first win over a national side, beating Ireland 13-4 in Dublin. On that tour, which featured a whopping 107 games over a span of a little more than a year, the pregame haka was born. On that tour, the ‘Ka Mate’, which was created by famous warrior chief Te Rauparaha, became the haka of choice. To this day, it has become the most well-known pre-match haka.
Nearly 130 years later, the hands of the players still quiver in an homage to Tane-rore who, within the Maori ethos, is the trembling of the air on warm summer days. Tane-rore, who is the son of Tama-nui-to-ra, the Sun God, and Hine-raumati, the Summer maid, created the haka.
When the pregame dance is performed – since 2001 the team’s official haka has been the Timatanga, which was created specifically for the Maori All Blacks by team elder Whetu Tipiwai – it’s a challenge to battle, but equally so, it’s a spiritual and emotional expression of identity.
On Friday, Canada will take on the challenge in front of the biggest crowd in Canadian rugby 15s history.
Five years ago, former Canadian international Jebb Sinclair also accepted the challenge.
Playing at Oxford University in England, Sinclair and his Canadian teammates faced the Maori All Blacks in a tour-ending contest. As they have in all five of their meetings with Canada’s top squad, the Maori All Blacks won, beating Sinclair’s side 32-19. In that game, he got a taste of rugby’s purest nectar.
“It’s really special,” Sinclair says. “There’s a huge amount of culture. Everyone who is on that team is extremely excited to be playing for the Maoris. One thing that was really cool was just going into their dressing room after. We had beers and got to hang out and relax and talk about things other than rugby.”
Serious business indeed, but as Sinclair learned, the free-spirited flavour that permeates the Maori’s culture and its rugby-playing style is yet another testament to their identity.
“It’s a cultural-based team,” McMillan says. “Maori being Maori, when we get together as a group, it’s often a very fun environment. It’s one that’s very inclusive, but also very competitive. Maori enjoy playing an expansive and entertaining style and that’s what we’ll look to continue to do.”
With McMillan coaching the Maori side for the first time, he’ll be looking to build on a long-lasting legacy of on-field success. While the truth behind everything Maori is foundationally fixed in culture, the team’s is far from blind to what helps make them a known entity – winning.
While they have incurred losses to club teams and variations of national sides, their test match success has been spotless in recent years. It’s been more than 14 years since the Maori All Blacks dropped a decision against a national side. Along the way, they’ve earned 19 consecutive wins over other international teams, including victories over Ireland, England, Fiji, the United States and, on five occasions, Canada. Their last loss was on June 6, 2003 when England bested the Maori boys 23-9.
Despite five straight wins over Canada, it’s unlikely Vancouver fans are going to see any sort of performance let down from the Maoris. Perhaps, the effort could be exactly the opposite. The last time the Maori All Blacks hit the pitch was against the British and Irish Lions earlier this year. On that day, the Lions stifled the Maori’s free-flowing game, earning a 32-10 victory. The loss wasn’t taken lightly. They’ll be coming to Vancouver aiming for a win.
With eight players from the game against the Lions back for the November tour, there are more than enough returnees to suggest a bounce-back performance could be in the offing.
Canadian Phil Mack’s eyes are set on making life on the pitch difficult for the Maoris. As Canada’s captain, he’d love nothing less than to snap the Maori All Blacks impressive winning streak. But at the same time, he’ll enter the contest with a unique connection to the Maoris. and with more than just another game in mind.
Mack, who is a member of the Toquaht First Nation, has become a sporting leader in the aboriginal community with his efforts to encourage sport in young athletes through his Thunder Rugby program. He sees the similarities between the aboriginal peoples of Canada and the Maoris of New Zealand and, with the prolific nature of the Maori All Blacks, he’s excited for the learning possibilities that exist within similar backgrounds.
“Personally, being a First Nations person, the parallels come in a lot of ways in terms of colonization,” Mack says. “I feel like the Maori All Blacks epitomize what it means to unify a culture and have a whole country stand behind it and lift them up. It’s really encouraging to see that kind of support. I think we can take a few lessons from what they’re doing down in New Zealand and apply them in Canada.
“I’m looking forward to picking their brains about the best way to move forward and try to get our aboriginal youth involved in the sport.”
It’s easy to see why Mack has a glimmer of excitement when he considers what possibilities could await in the future. He wonders what things could look like if a different scope is applied to what would appear to be similar circumstances.
With the Maoris, and similarly among Canada’s aboriginal people, it begins with their unique culture. Then rugby.
“We incorporate the language in everything we do,” McMillan says. “A lot of the things we do are around acknowledging our past players and our history. It’s a very passionate group, and our job is to enhance what is already a strong legacy in this journey.
“Rugby in New Zealand is more of a way of life than just sport. People grow up from a young age fully immersed in rugby club environments, and that’s the way it has been for generations. And in terms of the Maori All Blacks, we have a really strong focus on our cultural identity.”
Former Canadian captain Gareth Rees, who is now Rugby Canada’s Director of Commercial and Program Relations, experienced this first-hand in his playing days.
“There is that extra element with the Maori All Blacks because they are fiercely proud and it seems to be more than a game for them,” Rees says. “You know you’re in for a great challenge and I was always inspired by the war dance that they do before the games.”
One hundred and twenty-nine years of rugby-playing history and many more years of Maori culture will be on display Friday. But with that, a tall task awaits a Canadian side that will see recently hired head coach Kingsley Jones make his debut. While several Canadian players were unavailable for selection as they are currently in their professional seasons, one name who is likely to lead Canada is Tyler Ardron. If there’s one player who will help buoy the Canadian boat, it’s the stalwart No. 8, who, after signing a contract with Super Rugby’s Chiefs, spent the last few months playing in New Zealand with Bay of Plenty, who just so happen to be coached by McMillan.
For the first time since Ardron took his game to New Zealand, McMillan will have to coach against the mammoth Canadian.
“He’s a great bloke,” McMillan says. “If he’s an example of what we’re going to encounter (against Canada), then it’s going to be bloody tough.”
On Friday, McMillan will coach the Maori All Blacks for the first time. He too will experience that moment – that trembling air, which can engulf a stadium.
Then, the Timatanga will begin.
For the Maori All Blacks, the contest with Canada is the first of two matches on their November tour. The team will also travel to France where they will play the French Barbarians on November 10 in Bordeaux.
Following their match with the Maoris, Canada, currently sitting at 24th in the World Rugby rankings, will launch their November tour, which will feature matches against the number 12-ranked Georgia (Nov. 11), 19th seeded Spain (Nov. 18), and strong 9th ranked Fiji (Nov. 25).
Canada will then prepare for their Rugby World Cup 2019 Qualifying two-leg total-points (aggregate) series with number 18 on the World Rugby rankings Uruguay, which kicks off January 27 at BC Place.