Dominant All Blacks continue to harvest raw talent
New Zealand’s success in professional rugby, due in large part to its Pacific Island influence, though this is the result, not of poaching, but of a substantial change in demographics over the past several decades.
Tens of thousands of Samoans and Tongans took advantage of more relaxed immigration policies from the 1960s onwards to seek a better life in New Zealand. In rugby terms this came to fruition in the late-80s and early-90s, forming a happy intersection with the advent of the World Cup and the professional age.
The Kiwi rugby landscape had presented a somewhat different view in the amateur era. The Maori influence had been significant from the outset, with Thomas Rangiwahia Ellison captaining New Zealand's first official rugby team to Australia in 1893, and George Nepia playing every game on the ‘Invincible’ All Blacks’ unbeaten 32-match tour of the Northern Hemisphere in the mid-1920s to earn his place among the game’s 'immortals.'
Indeed, the sport has been credited with contributing to the integration of native and ‘Pakeha’ (white) New Zealanders. But there were seldom more than a few Maori players in All Blacks teams.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks’ winning average was significantly lower than it has been in the professional era, at about 66%, and it was South Africa, in particular, which posed a problem for the New Zealanders.
The Springboks were unbeaten in a series throughout the entire first half of the 20th century and maintained superior head-to-head records against allcomers - including the All Blacks.
They won a series in New Zealand in 1937, Danie Craven's revolutionary dive-passing at halfback catching the Kiwis by surprise, then whitewashed the touring All Blacks 4-0 in 1949, prop Okey Geffin, a former WWII PoW, proving the difference with his boot. New Zealand were not to avenge the former ignominy until the professional age, and have yet to redress the latter.
Although the All Blacks won the final series of the amateur era between the two nations in 1981, played in New Zealand, they were somewhat fortunate to do so; Allan Hewson landing the match-winning penalty in stoppage time of the decider, thus bringing to an end one of the most dramatic and controversial contests in sporting history.
Just a few years later a ‘rebel’ team of New Zealanders toured South Africa after a court injunction had prevented the official side from doing so. The ‘Cavaliers’ were well-beaten, not because one or two of their best players had declined to join them, but because they simply had no answer to the brilliance of Naas Botha, Danie Gerber and Carel du Plessis in the Springbok backline.
It is a salient point, for the New Zealand game had long been forward-oriented, evolving in the typically wet and muddy conditions of the nation's winters. There were a few game-breakers, of course; notably Bryan Williams – one of the first Samoans to play for New Zealand – Stu Wilson and John Kirwan. But by and large the standard was mediocre in comparison to the Springboks, and no match either for the dazzling genius of Australia’s David Campese.
South Africa had posed a problem for New Zealand in more ways than one. Not until the 1970s were non-white players eligible to tour the Republic. George Nepia, among others, was therefore excluded from the All Blacks’ 1928 squad, and neither were Maori players considered in 1949 or 1960.
This affront, combined with the game’s steadfast adherence to the amateur regulations, led to increasing numbers of Polynesians turning to the 13-man code, particularly in the metropolitan centres of Auckland and Wellington. A virtual non-factor prior to the 1980s, rugby league was to emerge as a fierce rival to the ‘national sport’ by the end of that decade. Indeed, league’s poaching raids on rugby union began to decimate the parent code and were undoubtedly a key factor in its belated transition to professionalism in the mid-1990s.
In fact, the amateur ethos had already begun to slip in various parts of the rugby union-playing world, and by the late 1980s it would be realistic to suggest many players were getting ‘looked after’. Thus the term “Shamateur” entered the sport’s vernacular. Coupled with the increasing isolation of South Africa, this appeared to stem the flow to league somewhat (though not the poaching), and the 15-man game’s popularity received a huge shot in the arm when New Zealand romped to victory at the inaugural World Cup in 1987.
Among the heroes of that World Cup-winning All Blacks squad was Samoan flanker Michael Niko Jones, who scored New Zealand’s first try at the tournament and also touched down in the final. Bruising centre Joe Stanley was another in the team of Samoan extraction.
Just two years later the All Blacks selected a burly Samoan youth by the name of Va’aiga Lealuga Tuigamala. ‘Inga the Winger’ ran his hulking 110kg frame up and down the flanks for New Zealand, pulverising everything in his path.
The dye was cast: Pacific Islanders began popping up in All Blacks teams with increasing regularity, notably in the back row and outside backs – thereby not only allaying the Kiwis’ shortcomings in the latter department but transforming it into a decisive advantage. No player demonstrated this in more spectacular fashion than giant winger Jonah Lomu, of Tongan extraction, who took the 1995 World Cup by storm as a mere 20-year-old.
The All Blacks were beaten by a determined home-team in the final that year, but have since turned the tables on the Springboks entirely, winning 34 matches to 12 over the past two decades to lead the all-time series 52-33. They have improved their overall winning average to 76% (85% in the pro era).
Today almost a third of the All Blacks’ 31-man squad is of Pacific Island origin, though all but three of them are New Zealand born and raised.
That’s not to say poaching of Pacific Island rugby talent is not an issue. But it is no longer a significant factor at international level, and far more New Zealand-born players are actually turning out for island teams these days than the other way around.
l Poulsen is former New Zealand Sports Reporter