Being a Māori All Black means more than just the game

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Saturday’s rugby game between the Māori All Blacks and Samoa in Te Whanganui-a-Tara is more than just an on-field clash for many of the players.

Maori All Black haka 2019
Photo: Photosport

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While the game will be played without fans it will still have a big impact on the players.

For some of the Māori players it might be the highest honour they achieve and it also gives them another chance to connect with their heritage.

And for Samoa it’s a chance for the side to get together, something that doesn’t happen often enough.

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A win over the 2005 British and Irish Lions would go down as one of the Māori All Blacks most memorable victories in recent years, along with wins over Ireland and England.

But it’s the fact that the side gets to play every year now that is one of their greatest successes.

While selection in the Māori side often comes second fiddle to All Blacks selection, for many it’s the highest honour.

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Māori assistant coach Roger Randle, who played in the side between 1995 and 2003, says connecting with one another and tikanga māori is the most important aspect of the team’s time together, with their on field performance a by product of that.

“You come in you hongi straight away and you get up there and the boys will be going through their pepeha which is really special for them and their whānau and getting our wānanga and whakatau going is really important for us and then the rugby will fall into place.”

While there are many leaders within the group, captain Ash Dixon has been kaitaki (leader of the haka) for a number of years now.

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Munster vs Maori All Blacks
Maori captain Ash Dixon lays down a jersey in tribute to Munster's Anthony Foley, 2016.

Ash Dixon, Munster 2016
Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Coach Clayton McMillan says Dixon, who has played 17 times for the Māori, has the mana and influence on the team that can’t be overstated.

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“It’s immense, there have been some monumental figures pull on the Māori jersey over the years and I think Ash is starting to put himself in that sort of category where he’s hugely passionate about being Māori he loves his team and is an inspirational leader and is the heart and soul of our environment.”

Highlanders loose forward Josh Dickson is one of the newcomers in the side and is keen to soak in everything that goes with being a Māori All Black.

“It’s new to me I’ve never been in an environment like this before so I’m excited to meet the boys and the coaches and get to know them a little bit better and really live the values and so I have to learn that haka and I’m excited for that and excited to get out there and do it proud.”

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The Māori All Blacks are now a regular on the fixtures list, but that’s not always the case for Pacific Island Nations like Samoa, who struggle to get their top side together.

They have two games against the Māori All Blacks before taking on Tonga in World Cup qualifiers.

It’s been almost two years since Samoa last took the field and the new skipper, the Crusaders front-rower Michael Ala’alatoa is looking forward to pulling on the blue jersey once again.

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“It’s been a while since we’ve been together as a team, we’ve got a lot of New Zealand-based Samoan players in the team, so it’s a great opportunity for them to done the blue jersey and we’re all hoping they do the jersey proud.”

Samoa rugby team trains in Wellington

Samoa train in Wellington
Photo: PHOTOSPORT

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The team did manage to get into the Samoan community earlier in the week before the latest Covid case, including visiting a Samoan Methodist church in Porirua.

Samoa last played in Wellington in 2004 and team manager Su’a Hesed Ieremia says they really feel for the locals who now can’t attend.

“We were looking forward to giving our fans what they’ve been longing for all this time and it’s disappointing for everyone, and that includes the Maori All Blacks, it’s hard to come down to the capital to play and we’re here and it would have been nice to have the fans there with us, but maybe next time.”

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Samoa will also take a financial hit from no crowd as they were the hosts for the match.

One of those unable to now go is Tawa fan Semisi, who was gutted when he found out no fans were allowed, but did see them train this week.

He says there was a big following in the Samoan community to see the Manu and also the New Zealand Maori play.

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“Wellington doesn’t really get to get Samoa, let alone the Māori All Blacks as well, especially with the Samoan community not being able to attend, but it is what it is, that’s Covid life isn’t it.”

Māori All Blacks coach Clayton McMillan says the move to alert level 2 is unfortunate for fans.

“We won’t get the big crowd we anticipated which is unfortunate for our whanau and supporters, but it won’t impact on our willingness to get out there and still play in the manner we want to for our people.”

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All going well Auckland fans will get to see Samoa and the Māori All Blacks play in Auckland next weekend.

Maori All Blacks's Otere Black. Maori All Blacks v Fiji, 2019.

Photo: PHOTOSPORT

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For the Blues first-five Otere Black it will be his last stint in the Māori jersey, with the playmaker leaving NZ rugby for Japan at the end of the season.

“A very special team for me being a proud Māori boy, I grew up fully immersed in Te Reo tikanga and all sorts of things within our world so it’s not only a proud moment for me but for my family as well.”

Samoa and the Māori All Blacks last met in Hamilton in 2008, with the home side winning 17-6.

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