Racist stain on New Zealand rugby lingers

07:33, Apr 04 2010
Oma Nepia, son of All Black great George Nepia, with a photo of his father
APOLOGY NEEDED: Oma Nepia, son of All Black great George Nepia, with a photo of his father. Nepia was one of the Maori players excluded from a tour to South Africa on racial grounds.

The NZRU is refusing to apologise to former Maori players - and their families - for excluding them from past tours to South Africa on racial grounds, a position that has been dubbed arrogant by the Maori Affairs Minister.

Maori were excluded from tours to South Africa in 1928, 1949 and 1960, but last week the New Zealand Rugby Union told the Sunday Star-Times that now was not the time to focus on "political issues that happened in the past".

The author of a new book on the history of Maori rugby, Malcolm Mulholland, found while researching Beneath the Maori Moon that it was still a burning issue for some whanau and former players.

He wrote to the NZRU last year inviting it to apologise, but rugby's governing body has refused.

The South African government routinely pursued racist policies before the apartheid regime of segregation that was in force from 1948 to 1994.

Even legendary Maori All Black George Nepia was omitted from the 1928 tour after the South African prime minister advised New Zealand government officials that it would be "embarrassing" for his white-rule regime if Maori played.


Jimmy Mill was a member of the legendary All Black "Invincibles" of 1924 but was banned from touring South Africa in 1928 because of his Maori blood.

His daughter, Patricia Mill of Gisborne, was said it was "appalling" that the NZRU was refusing to apologise.

She said it was about a "sense of justice".

"I think it's pretty poor. It would cost them so little to do the gracious thing and acknowledge that. There was pain at the time."

The Minister for Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples, accused the NZRU of "arrogance".

"The refusal of the NZRU to apologise to those Maori All Blacks who were dropped from teams to play against the Springboks because of the South African apartheid policies demonstrates the gross arrogance of the rugby union towards the Maori people.

"During that apartheid regime, the NZRU selected All Blacks for our country's top team to play South Africa on the grounds of race and colour, deliberating excluding any All Blacks of Maori descent.

"In this year, celebrating 100 years of Maori rugby, it would seem such a small but appropriate gesture for the NZRU to apologise."

Mulholland said he could not believe the "ignorance of the NZRU, including the Maori Board, in not wanting to apologise to Maori".

"This is a great insult to the former players, to their whanau, and to our people. It was blatant racism that was being practised in our own lands which made the players affected question their Maori identity over a game.

"A simple apology would have put to bed the biggest skeleton in the NZRU's closet."

George Nepia's son Oma said his father was very disappointed that he was not selected for the 1928 tour.

Oma Nepia, 76, of Palmerston North, said the New Zealand Rugby Union succumbed to pressure from the South African authorities and would have to live with their guilt if they would not apologise.

He said things had changed since the apartheid years, pointing out that his father also became the first non-white honorary member of the South African Rugby Union.

Oma's son George Nepia, who remembers well his namesake grandfather teaching him how to tackle, believed the NZRU mayt be reluctant to apologise because that would be an admission it had been wrong.

"We had an NZRU administration that saw fit to fall into line with another country's political agenda. That is a sad indictment of the obvious naivete and lack of what Maori would call kaha [courage].

"The team that my grandfather toured with in 1924 was unbeaten. I think that's a pretty telling indication as to why the South African Rugby Union didn't want any Maori playing in the team.

"Because to be beaten by white All Blacks, they could probably swallow that; but to be beaten by, in their eyes, the same skin as the people they were oppressing - I don't think that would have gone down too well.

"Who is it [an apology] going to hurt?"

The chairman of the NZRU's Maori Board, Wayne Peters, told the Star- Times that the board officially considered the matter twice. While it was aware of the reaction its decision might provoke, but decided it was more important in the centenary year of Maori rugby to focus on celebrations rather than political issues from the past that would never occur today.

Sunday Star Times