The All Blacks team for this Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup clash against the Wallabies has been named. A curious aspect of the teamsheet is that it is one of the whitest All Blacks teams named in decades. This means that a lot of the race-panic rhetoric at the turn of the century turned out to be grossly misguided, and this article looks at why.
In the opening years of this century, the All Blacks back row was made up of the “Great Wall of Samoa” in Jerry Collins, Chris Masoe and Rodney So’oialo, with the Tongan-born Sione Lauaki playing a part-time role. All three of these players typified the “big hit” culture of Polynesian rugby, and they earned the “Great Wall” epithet from their uncompromising defensive style.
The back three was comprised of the “Flying Fijians” Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, with the rock-solid Mils Muliaina as the last line of defence. All three players were lightning-fast across the ground – a quality, we were told, deriving from the superior proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the Polynesian genome. No white player was going to be able to compete, ever again.
The idea that the All Blacks front row would sooner or later be permanently Polynesian was taken for granted in many quarters. After all, the squat, solid build of the average Polynesian was considered the ideal build for a prop, and some considered it just a matter of time until the heavier build of the Polynesians won out.
The last bastion of white All Blacks was expected to be the second row, on account of that the Polynesian genome seldom produced men taller than 6’6″, which is realistically the minimum height necessary to succeed as an international lock. But even then, with players like Ross Filipo on the rise, it seemed as if the entire forward pack would follow the backs in becoming entirely Polynesian.
This piece from The Telegraph, penned in the year 2000 and titled ‘White players shying away from All Black future‘, is typical of the rhetoric of the turn of the century. John Morris, the headmaster of Auckland Grammar School, explained that white pupils at his school were abandoning rugby union and turning “to soccer, hockey or even rugby league where there is a better chance for the smaller lad.”
This seemed reasonable for white kids, who, going through puberty later than Polynesians, often found themselves as boys against men on the high school rugby fields. Many thought that white kids would all turn to cricket, essentially abandoning rugby to the Samoans, Fijians and Tongans.
John Matheson, editor of New Zealand Rugby magazine, even went as far as to state “It won’t be too long before there is not a white face in the All Black team.”
Fast forward 17 years, to this weekend’s Bledisloe Cup match, and those predictions could hardly have been more wrong.
The player with the most Polynesian blood in the All Blacks starting XV is the half-Samoan Reiko Ioane. Sonny Bill Williams, at centre, is next. He is at most half-Samoan, with a white mother and a father with a Welsh surname. All of the other All Blacks are white or Maori – and there is not a single Fijian or Tongan among them.
Two half-Samoans out of fifteen players means that less than 7% of the All Blacks are Polynesian by blood – a lower proportion than the amount of Polynesian blood in the New Zealand population as a whole, and barely greater than that of Black Caps. And even then, Ross Taylor is a far more established player in his team than either Ioane or Williams is in the All Blacks.
So what happened?
Explaining this outcome – and how the white ethnomasochists at the turn of the century got it so badly wrong – is not straightforward.
First, genetics plays a role, in ways that were understood by few 15 years ago. Polynesians may have a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and that may make them quick across the turf, but this simply means that white players have a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Because rugby union is fundamentally a game of possession, strength trumps speed in many cases, in particular when it comes to the contest for the ball.
Players of European descent have an advantage in the upper body over Polynesians, especially when it comes to grip strength and shoulder strength. When it comes to winning the ball, this advantage is decisive. This explains why the All Blacks forward pack this weekend will be entirely white, with the exception of the Maori hooker Codie Taylor (who nevertheless has plenty of European ancestry).
The second major explanation is geographical. If one looks at the birthplaces of the current All Blacks squad, one striking pattern leaps out: very few of them are born in the big cities.
The lifestyle of people in Kiwi big cities is following the trends established elsewhere in the West: big city people are rapidly getting fatter, lazier, more obese. This means that many more All Blacks are from the minor centres than before – and the population of the minor centres is almost exclusively white and Maori.
The third major factor is professionalism. At the turn of the century, rugby matches were often won by turns of individual brilliance, as they were in the amateur days.
The game has changed a lot since then. It is much more structured now, which means that there is less room for individual flair and more demand for highly-coached, error-free play, which shifts the advantage to the middle classes because they are far more able to pay for the necessary coaching. In doing so, the advantage also shifts away from the working-class Polynesians and back to the white people who occupy the vast bulk of the middle class.
In summary, the breathless predictions of total Polynesian dominance of the top levels of New Zealand rugby turned out to be wrong. Rugby union is a fundamental part of Islander culture, this is true – but it’s a fundamental part of white Kiwi culture as well, and the Pakeha are not going to give the game up simply because they get smashed a lot in teenage years.
Predicting the racial makeup of the All Blacks in another 17 years is impossible. What can be said for certain is – as Sir Apirana Ngata believed – rugby union will continue to serve as the best of all cultural solutions for bringing out inter-racial harmony and co-operation in New Zealand, as it has done for over 120 years.