Rugby league’s intriguing history

Many a workplace will be discussing the Kiwis’ gutsy display on Saturday night to down Australia and win the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. What a victory! It is the first time New Zealand has won the 54-year-old event, and comes 100 years after the first Māori professional team toured Australia and Great Britain. The tour was the beginning of the rugby league code in the southern hemisphere.

Throughout the history of the code in this part of the world, the contribution of Māori players has been significant and enduring. 100 Years: Māori rugby league 1908 – 2008 by John Coffey and Bernie Wood, charts the twists and turns of the history of league in Aotearoa with particular focus on the Māori teams and players who in the words of the authors have ‘followed in the sprig marks of Albert Asher and his men’.

A fascinating read, the book documents tour details, rule changes, and the on- and off-field wrangling that happened through the years. There’s plenty of recognisable names – George Nepia, Sorenson, Edwards, Kemp, Berryman, McGahan, Friend, Tamati – the list is long. But for me the joy of this book was in some of the little-known players and their stories: Riki Papakura, who played for Warrington in 1911, and Huatahi Turoa Brown Paki who was recruited by St George in 1922 and played for them in 1923. Paki’s brother George played in Sydney in subsequent years. More impressive was the career of Len Mason, who played 475 professional club games between 1927 and 1940, mostly on gluggy pitches in Wigan winters.

The photographs alone make this book worthwhile, but it is an intriguing read, and one that sheds a great deal of light on the history of league in New Zealand. It’s a sport where victory isn’t automatic and the wins are all the sweeter for it.

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