Kolisi & Savea showcase rugby’s racial change

If you want to know just how much change there has been when it comes to race and rugby in 2021, go back to the Springboks tour of New Zealand in 1921 and their 9-8 win against the Maori, writes Mark Keohane.

There was a great moment on the eve of the Springboks and All Blacks Centenary Test in Australia a few months ago when Springboks captain Siya Kolisi and All Blacks captain Ardi Savea prepared for a photo shoot to promote the Rugby Championship.

Kolisi, in speaking to Savea, said how cool it was that after 100 years of rivalry between the game’s two greatest rugby-playing nations and combined winners of Six World Cups, two players of colour would be leading out the teams in the 100th showdown.

The 100th Test, scheduled for Dunedin in New Zealand because that is where the 1st was played, had to be moved to Australia because of Covid. But the showdown and the one that followed would be brutal contests with both sides winning one and the aggregate score being tied.

The respect between Kolisi and Savea was obvious and if you follow both on social media, they enjoy a friendship that extends their international on-field rivalry.

Kolisi, of Xhosa heritage, leading the Springboks, and Savea, of Samoan heritage leading the All Blacks. The game of rugby in both countries had advanced, but it’s been one hell of a battle to get it to this point.

And for that alone, 2021 is a celebration, in that we are finally there because 100 years ago, what was there was as ugly as it should have been unacceptable.

Mike Munro is the author of ‘1921 Rugby, Race & Empire’ and it details the first Springboks tour of New Zealand in 1921 and the headline that screamed at me was ‘the most unfortunate match ever played: when the Maori played the Springboks a century ago’.

For the record, the Springboks, in their 17th match on tour, beat the Maori 9-8.

It isn’t the match detail, but the dynamics around the match that made for such powerfully numbing reading, especially the parts that spoke of South African disgust because the Pakeha (white) section of the home crowd cheered the Maori as the home team.

Munro writes that some Springboks turned their backs on the Maori poi performance, which angered the Maori players, some of whom were quoted as saying that it was more than a rugby match and that they were ‘playing for their race’.

The fractured nature of the occasion and the racial tension is emphasised by the prejudice and racist match report written by the South African journalist Charles Blackett, who was travelling with the Springboks.

Blackett, described as a pipe-smoking rugby correspondent. Wrote: Most unfortunate match ever played. Only a result of great pressure being brought to bear on (Springboks manager) Bennett induced them to meet Māoris. Bad enough having to play team officially designated New Zealand natives, but spectacle of thousands of Europeans frantically cheering on band of coloured men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who were frankly disgusted.’

The newspaper report was greeted with shock in New Zealand and while the Springboks distanced themselves from Blackett, they could not escape the glare of New Zealanders, especially the Arawa iwi of Rotorua, who had hosted the Springboks at the Ohinemutu marae three weeks before the Maori match.

Kiwi Amohau had sent a letter to the Springboks management to say that ‘to accept their (Arawa) welcome and break bread with our people, and then later insult them as you have done was not what Māori understood to be the manner of honourable gentlemen’.

Munro writes that on the last day of the 1921 tour, a senior minister and future prime minister, in farewelling the Springboks, stated that New Zealand was proud of the Māori people and that ‘Māori and Pākeha are one in New Zealand.’ He expressed the hope that the visitors ‘now understand that.’

That was in 1921.

One hundred years later, it is a whole lot different and while we bemoan the pedestrian pace of change, at least there is evidence that there has been change.


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