Mud, mauling and mana

Tribal rugby stalwarts Wally Rongonui, left, and Tom Katene are determined to see the competition back up and running.
Tribal rugby stalwarts Wally Rongonui, left, and Tom Katene are determined to see the competition back up and running.

Ruanui had just beaten Ngaruahine in a tribal rugby game at Hawera. It was a hard-fought physical encounter, cousin against cousin.

There was a huge crowd and lots of verbal - on and off the field.

As Ngaruahine coach Tom Katene walked off the field, the referee tapped him on the shoulder.

"He said, 'Hey Tom - jeez, that game was pretty full on . . . I got a bit concerned about my safety," Mr Katene recalls.

He told the ref he would talk to the guys and tell them to tone it down. But it wasn't the players the ref was scared of - it was the aunties behind the goalposts.

Mr Katene replied: "Look mate, I can talk to 30 guys and get away with it comfortably, but I'll leave the aunties up to you." He shook the referee's hand and walked away.

That was back in the 1980s. Since then, tribal rugby seems to have been relegated to history - there hasn't been a game for five or six years, and even then the number of teams has halved.

The Maori representative sides have continued to play, and Mr Katene - who is Taranaki Maori Rugby Football Union chairman and a life member - and TMRFU member Wally Rongonui want to see the return of the tribal games.

A tournament is planned for September 10 at The Hub in Hawera, and seven of the eight tribal teams have confirmed they will play.

Tribal rugby in Taranaki started around 1924. The original teams were Te Atiawa, Ngaruahine, Ruanui, Nga Rauru, Manawapou and Taranaki Tribal.

Pukeariki and Ngaere were added later. Pukeariki were players from Te Atiawa who lived in New Plymouth, and Ngaere picked up players from central Taranaki.

The competitiveness between the teams was intense - and not just on the field. There was also competition around who put on the best food, who had the best dress jersey, who had the best waiata.

And the competitiveness meant the iwi boundaries became quite flexible.

Having whanau playing for different tribal teams was always a bit controversial, Mr Katene says.

"But there were no hard and fast rules. Where people worked is often where they played. You could be playing against your brother, your cousin, your uncle."

Tribal rugby is about pride and mana.

"You played your club game on Saturday, but when you came to Maori rugby on Sunday it was a totally different way of playing. It was free-spirited, hard-hitting, running, no set play, all out physical," Mr Katene says.

Mr Rongonui remembers playing at Rugby Park "and both sides had scored 40 or 50 points each side".

"The referee stopped the game to have a rest. He couldn't keep up."

The coaches wanted to know why the players didn't play like that for them, he laughs.

Tribal rugby involved running, running, and more running.

"That was the Maori way. Tribal rugby at its best. A lot of the [club members] would come and support us. Where else would you get a game of rugby on a Sunday and get a good feed afterwards?"

The after-match function, the hakari, was as important as the game.

"No matter where you went to play around the maunga, you could always guarantee the after- match function was different than the club scene on a Saturday," Mr Katene says, laughing.

"Tribal rugby in Taranaki was pretty unique."

Mr Katene was brought into tribal rugby by family members, and played prop for Ngaruahine. He played off and on during the late 1970s and has been more deeply involved since 1980.

Mr Rongonui also got into tribal rugby through family, playing his first game for Te Atiawa when he was 16. His father, Milton, was an administrator, coach, president and "everything", he says. And now his daughter is the TMRFU secretary.

"The whole Taranaki Maori Rugby Football Union is whanau. It doesn't matter where we are from. Pukeariki, most of us don't whakapapa here."

But that doesn't affect the pride the players have for the team. And when a trophy is thrown into the mix, the intensity increases even more.

There are 17 cups and shields, tribal rugby's taonga. The Parihaka shield originated from Parihaka in the 1920s or 30s, with the aim of bringing Maori rugby together.

From the 1920s to the 1960s there were five taonga that were regularly played for. The others came later.

One year, Pukeariki was playing Te Atiawa for the Parihaka Shield. Mr Rongonui had managed to scrape together 15 players, who were all "off the street". None of them played for a local club.

"In the dressing room, I spoke to them of the taonga and whakapapa back to the taonga, and what the meaning of it was. We almost won. Atiawa were all very strong."

The pride was such that games were not called off, even if one team could not field 15 players, he says.

"I played with teams and against teams that only had 11 players. You're still very competitive."

But then the rules changed, and calls around safety would see the game called off.

Rugby league also had an impact on tribal rugby. Many Maori played league, and back in the day league players were not allowed to play rugby.

Usually, no-one cared, but if a taonga was up for grabs it was different, Mr Rongonui says. Then, someone would point out a player who had played league the day before.

But the game is only part of the tribal rugby tradition.

"We'd play on Saturday for club teams, have a few beers, get home at 4am. But you still had to be at the venue for breakfast at 10am, if you were the host."

The idea was to get people there to prepare for the feast after the game.

"And that used to work. You'd get boys turning up who were supposed to be playing in the afternoon, with a hangover. They'd have a good feed, peel spuds or whatever, and that's part of it."

Well-known Taranaki names like Colin Cooper, Howie Tamati and Paul Martin all used to play tribal rugby, which is different to the Maori rep teams, although many players and managers were involved in both.

Mr Rongonui remembers coaching the Taranaki Maori team at a tournament in Taupo in the 1990s. Mr Katene was the team manager.

It was Taranaki Anniversary day, so they asked if the team could stay on for another night. "We thought we'd run a secret raffle, and all the boys chipped in," Mr Rongonui says. When the raffle was drawn, he walked away because he knew which number was going to be picked. "One, four. 14." He knew who the winner was going to be because there was only one number in the hat - 14, and it belonged to Mr Katene.

The secret prize? A bungy jump.

"I had never seen a guy turn white. He couldn't sleep that night." Mr Katene did the jump.

An exhibition on rugby, It's Not Just a Game. Whanau. Whakapapa. Whutupaoro, opens at Puke Ariki today.

Taranaki Daily News