Rugby has been the sport for Ngati Porou over the years, uniting the iwi against outsiders, creating strong competition between hapu, and bringing forward some great leaders.
Ngāti Porou East Coast
The East Coast Rugby Football Union (ECRFU) was formally established in 1921 and became part of the national Rugby Union the next year with 19 local clubs. Over the years East Coast has had a proud history, with its greatest accomplishment coming at the turn of the millennium. In 1999 East Coast won the 3rd Division NPC final over Poverty Bay at Whakarua Park. Declining promotion in 2000, in 2001 they took the New Zealand rugby scene by storm, coming to a nail-bitingly close 30-27 loss against Hawkes bay in the 2nd Division final, but winning the hearts of the rugby public. And helping to build and extend the identity of Ngati Porou. In 2012 the team staged a great comeback to win the Meads Cup Final 29-27 over Whanganui. Today Ngāti Porou East Coast may be small in money in a professional global rugby environment, but remain large in heart. The only iwi-led rugby union, they continue to innovate including live streaming their home games for Ngati Porou to watch all over the world.
Club vs Club, Hapu vs Hapu
Although the iwi comes together behind Ngati Porou East Coast against outsiders, within the Union it is a strong competition. From its establishment the 19 clubs represented a hapu vs hapu competition. Ta Apirana noted that kaumatua in the 1920s and 30s viewed rugby as a way to carry on much older competitions: ‘the appeal is not so much in the game as the revival in a new form of ancient clashes’. By the 1930s games could be between the Ruatoria City Club and the Waiomatatini Moomoos, or the local clash between the Tikitiki Eagles and the Rangitukia Rangers played at the old ground in front of Rahui marae. Local clubs were big affairs – the Rangitukia Rangers had women’s hockey teams and basketball teams in the East Coast competitions. Today the competition lives in with 9 clubs competing each year: TVC, Uawa, Waiapu, Ruatoria City, Hicks Bay, Hikurangi, Tawhiti, Tokararangi, and Tokomaru Bay United.
The greatest player ever to represent East Coast was undoubtedly Papa George Nepia. At the age of only 19 Papa George was one of the stars of the 1924–25 All Blacks, dubbed ‘the Invincibles’. The only fullback on the long tour, he played in all 32 matches on the team’s tour of the British Isles, France and Canada, including four tests. He was so well respected that a leading British journalist wrote, ‘it is not for me a question of whether Nepia was the best fullback in history. It is a question of which of the others is fit to loose the laces of his Cotton Oxford boots’. In 1930 Papa George played four more tests against the British Lions. Papa George was so well-respected that in 1982, almost 60 years after his last game there, he was given a standing ovation by 30000 spectators at a ground at Wales. Ta Apirana helped George Nepia captain Māori side tour of Australia in 1935 in his role as unofficial selector of the side. Papa George also continued to play for both the Waiapu Rangers and East Coast. In 1947 he played for East Coast aged 42, and when he turned out for the Rangers John Manuel recalled the saying was ‘Kei reira te koroua kaua e maharahara’ (there’s the old man, so no need to worry). In 2004 Rangitukia park was renamed George Nepia Memorial Park in honour of the greatest player the Coast ever produced.
Watch the George Nepia,All Black Hall of fame video
Great Players, Great Leaders
There have been other great players and leaders produced by the iwi over the years. Buff Milner from Tokomaru Bay was an All Black in 1970 and played for East Coast and the New Zealand Maori team for many years. Rua Tipoki played for: Auckland Blues and Otago Highlanders in the Super 12; the New Zealand 7s; helped the Bay of Plenty Steamers to their first Ranfurly Shield win in 2004 and captained North Harbour to their first Ranfurly Shield victory in 2006 – as well as of course captaining NPEC. Hosea and Rico Gear have both played at the highest levels, including the New Zealand Māori team and the All Blacks.
Ngati Porou women have always been the backbone of Ngati Porou rugby. Nanny Huinga Nepia looked after the farm while Papa George was off playing rugby, and women have been the stalwarts of the clubs ensuring they ran smoothly. Today women’s rugby is making its mark, with several Ngati Porou playing for the Black Ferns. Trish Hina has represented New Zealand in softball as a Junior NZ White Sox player, played for the Kiwi Ferns Womens League team, been a touch rugby representative and of course played for the Black Ferns who won the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2010. Trish is working towards NPEC having a women’s team in the national competition, and with leadership like this the future for Ngāti Porou women’s rugby looks bright.