If mainstream culture exists downstream of rugby culture, thank God for Ngā Mamaku

Embracing the Wā Poi campaign are fans at Eden Park for the women's rugby world cup final between Ngā Mamaku and England.

KAI SCHWOERER/Stuff

Embracing the Wā Poi campaign are fans at Eden Park for the women’s rugby world cup final between Ngā Mamaku and England.

Joel Maxwell is a senior Stuff journalist who focuses on te ao Māori issues.

OPINIONS: The thing about sport is that results are ultimately ephemeral: teams, individuals go up and down, win and lose, and leave nothing behind but a residue of scorecards, fading memories, and a ton of work for stadium cleaners.

Consider Rugby Park, Hamilton, in the 1990s.

I’ve forgotten every result of every match I ever watched from the stands during that time. All that remains is the vivid experience of live rugby. If, for instance, you needed to relieve yourself, you rolled down a steep embankment to the men’s toilets. This building was a masterpiece of design simplicity, in which three out of any four interior walls were intended to be urinated on.

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Gray concrete, airless gloom, molding urinal tablets – it was all a sensory underload. At the floorline, a single uninterrupted open clay-pipe drain runs below each wall around the entirety of the structure.

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We, drunken louts, stumbled out of this bunker and wandered back to the action in the uncovered seats. Over the years this action included: screaming louts, urinating louts, vomiting louts, aggressive louts, immature louts, lout girlfriends, and Waikato versus Wellington, or something.

I can look back now and see that by the mid-90s Western civilization never really developed past the Middle Ages. We might as well have been wearing codpieces and those weird shoes with turned-up toes; a bunch of turnip-waving peasants with 20th-century dental hygiene, and video club cards.

I don’t recall the status of things Māori at the stadium then, but I can only hope the sentiment of the crowd had improved since it enthusiastically attempted to kick in the collective head of anti-apartheid protesters during the 1981 Springbok tour.

In New Zealand, to modify a famous phrase, mainstream culture has existed downstream of rugby culture. And if that is indeed the case, then thank God for women’s rugby.

Ngā Mamaku celebrate a victory for New Zealand, and a victory for Aotearoa.

RICKY WILSON/Stuff

Ngā Mamaku celebrate a victory for New Zealand, and a victory for Aotearoa.

Flash forward 25-odd years to today and Ngā Mamaku, the Black Ferns’, world cup final against England rocked my world. It was by all accounts a party atmosphere at the packed Eden Park but without the nasty, boozy edge of years gone by.

In the time it took me personally to go from the Middle Ages to middle-aged – to descend into prostate exams and astigmatism – we have actually done some growing up as a nation, culture-wise.

This year the Black Ferns’ first-up game against Australia featured Dame Hinewehi Mohi singing the national anthem. She sang E Ihowā Atua for the All Blacks for the first time ever, in a game against England at Twickenham during the 1999 world cup. Back in 90s Aotearoa more than a few New Zealanders choked on their early morning beers at this reo-only version – a helpful bit of prep for the All Black semifinal against France (spoiler, we lost).

Hinewehi Mohi was criticized for singing New Zealand's national anthem in te reo Maori at the Rugby World Cup in 1999. At the women's Rugby World Cup in 2022, the crowd sang along with her.

Victoria Johnson/Stuff

Hinewehi Mohi was criticized for singing New Zealand’s national anthem in te reo Maori at the Rugby World Cup in 1999. At the women’s Rugby World Cup in 2022, the crowd sang along with her.

This year Ngā Mamaku performed karanga, and their own haka, Ko Ūhia Mai, before games.

Then there was the Wā Poi campaign that saw thousands of poi at matches, a potentially fraught plan but one that saw the taonga treated with respect by fans. I shudder to think what would have happened to them back in 90s Hamilton. (It helps that in 2022, this was an event for, by and with women.)

I’m glad we showed off our culture to the world. But mostly I’m glad we showed our culture to ourselves.

Even if the score will eventually be forgotten by the 42,000-plus people at the game, the experience, which gave a decent nudge towards biculturalism, will remain inside each person. That was the biggest victory for Aotearoa.

Joel Maxwell: “I'm glad we showed off our culture to the world.  But mostly I'm glad we showed our culture to ourselves.”

Jericho Rock-Archer/Stuff

Joel Maxwell: “I’m glad we showed off our culture to the world. But mostly I’m glad we showed our culture to ourselves.”

We can, with some relief, accept that perhaps upstream of everything – even rugby – is a fundamental identity carved out of our indigenous past.

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