30 Jun 2017

Call to kick 'Pākehā narrative' in NZ rugby

10:59 am on 30 June 2017

Rugby is stuck in a mindset that Māori and Pasifika players are all brawn and no brain, and that needs to change, a sports academic says.

rugby ball

Photo: 123RF

A recent two-day seminar in Palmerston North was told despite recent improvements, rugby stereotypes remained stubbornly rooted in the national game, and that was hindering its development.

Jeremy Hapeta, 40, lectures in physical education at Massey University in Palmerston North and has been involved with rugby nearly all his life.

In that time, the percentage of Māori and Pasifika in the All Blacks has increased from about 10 percent in the early 1980s to more than half now.

But Mr Hapeta said there was still a dearth of knowledge, respect and appreciation for the different cultures that made up the team.

He said while things were a far cry from the dark days of the 1970s and '80s, it wasn't enough.

"We've come out of the dark ages of being culturally blind, and now we're stepping into the light.

"However, we can't rest on our laurels and pull stumps ... we have to make sure we're improving every day, every season."

As part of his PhD, Mr Hapeta analysed attitudes towards Māori and Pasifika in four prominent rugby texts: Richie McCaw's autobiography; the NZ Rugby magazine; Tom Johnson's 2014 book Legends in Black; and Phil Gifford's 2015 book Inside the Cup.

In all of them he found stereotypes about Māori and Pasifika players flourished, and the 'Pākehā narrative' dominated.

One of Mr Hapeta's gripes was the assertion that skinny white boys were being driven out of the game by parents worried at the size of their brown opponents.

"Bodie and Jordie Barrett, they're pretty big units. I wouldn't call them skinny white boys - in fact the little runts in the All Blacks at the moment are Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden."

His comments hit home with another speaker at the conference, ex-All Black and Blues player Saveatama Eroni Clark.

Mr Clark recalled being in the Auckland National Provincial Championship (NPC) team in the early 1990s, when an ageing generation of stars were being replaced by younger players, under the tutelage of their coach, Sir Graham Henry.

"A lot of these younger players were Māori and Pacific, and they were making some uncharacteristic mistakes."

Mr Clark said the famous coach had an uncompromising style at the time, which involved - to put it politely - rather a lot of ranting and swearing.

"So after a while ... he spoke to Michael Jones and I, and asked us, how do I get the best out of my Pacific Island players? We began to talk to Graham about his approach - the way you're shouting and swearing, it doesn't connect."

Mr Hapeta said the All Blacks now realised being aware of cultural differences played a part in getting the best out of their players, which was reflected in their dominance globally.

He said the challenge was to replicate that throughout the entire structure - from the professional level to grassroots rugby.

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