Coach Steve Hansen freely admits the role Polynesians have played in the success of New Zealand rugby, but to see it as a one way success story would be grossly misleading.
“I come to New Zealand and see kids, and man …. They get it so easy. I don’t want to be sad or mean. But they don’t come through what I came through. You see many kids here being ungrateful. They want mobile phones, cars, everything …”
This from Fijian born, and now All Black man-beast, Waisake Naholo, in a truly fascinating chapter of Peter Bills’s book, The Jersey that looks into the influence of the Polynesians on New Zealand rugby.
Naholo understands sacrifice. Offered only a half fee scholarship to a school in New Zealand, his dad worked two jobs in order to cover the other half. This knowing what a massive opportunity it was for the talented young boy. A boy who was part of a 15 person family living in a 2 bedroom home.
“You get paid shit money on the island,” says Naholo. “My father had a job but it didn’t pay much. It’s like two countries in one. In the first, the local people are struggling to find enough money to buy food. On the second, wealthy tourists are staying in these luxury hotels.”
So, as he remembers his friends back in Fiji, it saddens him to see the modern day young spoilt brats. Some he went to school with. Some even more talented than him. But they never got their ticket to ride. Their parents simply unable to afford the fees.
For Naholo, it’s now payback time, each month sending a sizeable chunk of his rugby earnings back to his family in Fiji. “I don’t find anything wrong with that,” he tells Bills in the book. “What they do with the money, I don’t have a say, but they need it”.
People from the Pacific Islands have been migrating South to New Zealand to find work and a better life for centuries. In describing the early integration, Bills writes: “The word was they lacked discipline. Concentration. They wouldn’t live up to the high demands. Good in short bursts for their explosive power, so the argument went. But over 80 minutes? They wouldn’t sustain it and would weaken the spine of New Zealand rugby, namely, a team forged on physically strong, no-nonsense farmers. Rich in the DNA of their ancestors.”
All Blacks legend Colin Meads, who died before publication, told Bills: “They are really good rugby players. They have been brought up with our education system. They have got education and they are disciplined. If they are not disciplined, they don’t quite get into the All Blacks.”
A little condescending perhaps, but one conclusion in the book is that the “Paheka”, or whites, are the ones who had to be the most flexible to adapt and learn what it means to be a New Zealander. “Key qualities are necessary to integrate peoples. Tolerance and patience are good starting points,” writes Bills.
With school like St Kents and others now recruiting vigorously, flying out officials to the Polynesian islands to look for talent, head of sport at the school Steve Cole admits that he often lies awake at night, pondering the merits of the scheme and wondering if it is too professional.
Perhaps, but as Bills writes: “This is no modern day invention by a few rapacious rugby coaches. And you can’t stop people chasing a sporting or financial nirvana.”
A bit like the modern day crop of South Africans heading to rugby pastures greener?
With exclusive interviews with Richie McCaw, Steve Hansen, Beauden Barrett, Colin Meads and Dan Carter, The Jersey is the first definitive story behind the greatest sports team on the planet.
“This is a wonderful description of why the All Blacks are so good. The author’s assessment is spot on. Beautifully written”, said Nick Mallett of the book.
Veteran rugby journalist Peter Bills was given exclusive access to key figures in New Zealand rugby as he set out to understand the secrets behind the All Blacks success. He spoke at length with over 90 people about what makes the All Blacks tick.
It’s a great Festive Season read – CLICK HERE to buy the book.