In 1888-89, some twenty-two years before the official formation of a New Zealand Māori side in 1910, a 26-man squad called the New Zealand Natives (for it included several Pākehā) made an epic 107-match tour of the north and Australasia. They won 78 of them, including 49 in the UK and Ireland, but their itinerary was almost suicidal, often playing 3-4 games a week.
On December 1, the NZ Natives faced Ireland at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road, winning 13-4, scoring five tries – including a brace to Paddy Keogh – to two, in a stirring second half comeback.
The following summation was given by rugby historian Greg Ryan in his 1993 book Forerunners of the All Blacks, reproduced on the NZ Rugby Museum website:
‘Local observers were understandably stunned by the result, but seemed more content to criticize Ireland than to praise the Native team; for example: “That the result shows the home team anything but brilliant scorers goes without saying, and seldom has an Irish international combination shown to less advantage.” Another saw the match as “a very poor and easygoing exposition of football throughout, any respectable play being shown by the visitors.”
For the next hundred years, until the Dublin Test of 1989, even the All Blacks, let alone the Māori All Blacks, rarely played Ireland. The All Blacks would only play the Irish when on their long northern tours, while Ireland did not tour New Zealand until 1976.
In 2006, Don Stevenson’s Māori All Blacks defeated Ireland A 27-6 in San Francisco, and the next year doubles to Ben May and Hosea Gear helped the Māori win 50-22 against the same opponents in Exeter.
By now, the All Blacks and Ireland were facing each other far more frequently, the men in emerald green touring these shores in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012.
In 2010, the Māori All Blacks celebrated one hundred years as a team and they undertook a short internal tour against worthy and international opposition.
After a brilliant late Hosea Gear try sealed a 37-31 victory over a strong NZ Barbarians combination in Whangārei, the Māori All Blacks travelled to the heart of Māoridom in Rotorua for an historic first encounter with the full Ireland side.
Liam Messam captained the Jamie Joseph-coached team, which fielded nine past or future All Blacks, including two current players in Aaron Smith and Dane Coles, the latter used as a sub.
It was a cracking affair before around 14,000 people at the International Stadium. Johnny Sexton, the sole survivor from the 2010 tourists who will return this month, kicked eight goals, including seven penalties to keep Ireland right in the contest, though he did miss a crucial late shot. His No 12 Paddy Wallace scored the sole Ireland try.
For the Māori, there were three tries to Gear, Dwayne Sweeney, and a sensational team effort finished by Karl Lowe. At 28-all, sub Willie Ripia kicked a 72nd minute penalty to break the deadlock and seal a stirring victory by the home side, adding to their burgeoning list of international scalps.
Here’s what this scribe, writing for Rugby News mag at the time, had to say:
‘It all unravelled swiftly for Ireland at the end, fluffing a lineout, flinging passes every which way, and for the second time in a week the Maori closed out the match with the composure that was not always evident through large chunks of the 80 minutes.’
Just five days’ later, the Māori All Blacks again won in compelling style, 35-28 over England in Napier, Hosea Gear once more to the fore with a hat-trick.
There have been aspects of tikanga Māori whenever the All Blacks have faced Irish sides. In 2008, the All Blacks edged Munster 18-16 in Limerick, a match most famous for the rousing haka performed by Munster’s Kiwis Rua Tipoki, Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi and Jeremy Manning in response to the All Blacks’ haka.
In 2016, the Māori All Blacks themselves got to face Munster for the first time at Thomond Park, Limerick.
While Munster triumphed 27-14, the Maori’s two tries going to wings Jonah Lowe and Ambrose Curtis, the match was highlighted before kickoff when captain Ash Dixon presented a Māori All Blacks jersey with the initials AF on the back in tribute to Munster legend and former coach Anthony Foley, who had died recently and suddenly. Dixon passed the jersey to Foley’s two young sons in an emotional moment. Then followed a passionate haka by the Māori before the match itself.
The Māori All Blacks will draw on some of this history as they prepare for this unprecedented two-match series against the world’s No 4-ranked side.
Get your tickets HERE to watch the Māori All Blacks take on Ireland in Hamilton and Wellington on Wednesday 29 June and Tuesday 12 July, respectively.