All-white All Blacks paint shades of grey in rugby history

27 July 2022 | News

New Lincoln University research reveals how New Zealand rugby’s troubled early playing history against a racist South Africa is more nuanced than is often perceived.

In 1928, a whites-only All Blacks toured South Africa for the first time, generating heated discussion about the exclusion of Māori.

All-white sides toured South Africa again in 1949 and 1960, and in 1970 and 1976, Māori players were selected, but only as "honorary whites".

Professor Greg Ryan, author of Debating Racial Hierarchy and the Exclusion of Māori from the 1928 All Blacks Rugby Tour to South Africa, said it was misleading to simply project backwards from the global post-Second World War anti-apartheid campaign to the 1920s.

The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) said it wanted to protect Māori players by not selecting them, it being "unwise to send players who would be exposed to insults".

However, the Akarana Māori Association had protested at this 'slur' on Māori and said a team should not tour unless it was representative of New Zealand.

The NZRFU responded that its decision had been made in full consultation with its Māori Advisory Board and Māori political leaders.

The debate for some Māori leaders centred around being treated in the same way as the South African black population, and accused South African rugby of "having 'bad taste and gross ignorance' in applying their own racial antipathies to Māori who possessed superior background and history to other native peoples of the British Empire".

Although acknowledging that the invitation for the tour had not explicitly mentioned Māori, the NZRFU said "that anyone who had lived in South Africa would understand that their inclusion was quite impossible". 

“This reveals much about New Zealand, perceptions of race and racial hierarchies in the inter-war British Empire and the role of certain Māori leaders in shaping and reinforcing these attitudes,” Professor Ryan said.

However, he added, the issues with Māori rugby players touring South Africa began in 1919, but was not known to the public then.

The New Zealand Services rugby team which included Parekura Tureia, a Māori player, and Nathaniel Arthur ‘Ranji’ Wilson, a prominent pre-war All Black of Anglo-West Indian parentage, was scheduled to tour there.

Neither went after a warning from South Africa that the tour could be “wrecked” if they were included.

Issues were also raised at the time about the appropriateness of South Africa having to play a Māori side on their New Zealand tour in 1921, and later about their inappropriate behaviour in the game.

When another Springbok tour to New Zealand was confirmed for 1937, the Te Arawa confederation of Māori iwi and hapu from the Bay of Plenty said “no Māori player should be asked to play against the Springboks, no Māori representative team should play against them, and no Māori should be involved in official functions to host or entertain the team”.

It also saw the NZRFU as supporting South African attitudes “in that Māori were not selected for the 1928 tour, and ‘thus the Māori people suffered a further affront to their sporting instincts from within their own land, and by that action was surrendered a definite principle in the democracy of sport which recognises merit only, regardless of race, creed or colour.'"

Professor Ryan said as apartheid was consolidated in South Africa, New Zealand rugby’s position became increasingly untenable and divisive, “although it made little concession to reality until the late 1980s and still enjoyed substantial public support for its insistence that politics and sport should not mix”.

Image: The 1928 All Blacks.