George Nepia hailed as the first global star of rugby

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As part of celebrating 200 years of rugby ahead of this year's Rugby World Cup, the newspaper said Nepia's impact during the 1924-25 tour of Britain, Ireland and France was roughly comparable to that made later by Serge Blanco and Jonah Lomu.

Nepia played so well that one English rugby writer wrote, "The question is not whether George Nepia is the greatest fullback in history, but who, among the others would be worthy to lace up his Cotton Oxford shoes."

Nepia played all 32 games on the All Blacks' unbeaten tour, and by the tour's end, he was a drawcard for the games to be played in France in Toulouse and Paris. In Toulouse, Nepia was the player all wanted to see. The newspaper said the Twin Bridges stadium was packed for the first time while 15 British journalists had applied for accreditation to cover the game.

While he played only nine Tests, the result of New Zealand's decision not to send Māori players with the 1928 team to South Africa, and his injury on the 1929 tour to Australia, he did enough in those games to be regarded as a phenomenon.

"His tackle was deadly. He scored only 77 points during the famous tour but zero in the Tests. It was Mark Nicholls who kicked for the side. Nepia scored only one try in a Test match during his career.

"It is more beautiful this way because his trajectory can hardly be translated into figures. It was based on the sensations of those who saw him play.

"He had the footwork, the ferocity of his tackle, but it was his ability to intervene among opposing forwards in dribbling rushes, like a pack of wolves who kept the ball at their feet as they advanced. Nepia never hesitated to dive into this jungle before getting up, ball in hand and 'counter-attacking' by severely jostling the opponents and knocking them down like bowling pins.

"That is what he did in Swansea against the Welsh in front of 50,000 spectators by putting the ageing opposing captain Jack Wetter out of action (who returned to finish the game concussed).

"His dynamism was 40 years ahead of time. If George Nepia was a forerunner of something, it is undoubtedly in this field, the revival and the counter-attack."

When he switched to rugby league, when not selected for the 1935-36 tour to Britain and Ireland, to hold onto his East Coast farm with the contract payment of 500 pounds, the largest for any player to play league, 20,000 spectators attended his first game in London, three days after he arrived from New Zealand.

He played for two seasons before returning to New Zealand to lead the league Kiwis to a historic 16-15 win over Australia in 1937.


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