How Hori and Big John Met
Rugby has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Long before I decided to be a thespian. So deep was my bond to the game that at Toi Whakaari I wrote a theatre review on the Wellington 7’s. How, like a greek tragedy, heroic New Zealand was defeated in the quarters by the enemy Fiji. Rugby and theatre, coming together in beautiful synchronisation. This culminated for me in the performance of Hone Kouka’s play I, George Nepia. Just me on stage telling the story of an all black great for 80 minutes. In rugby terminology, I’ve clocked in over 50 caps performing the play and it’s been quite a journey with many highlights.
These are some musings of that journey.
Growing up my rugby club was Mount Wellington Rugby Football in Auckland. It was a whānau club. Uncles, siblings and cousins all played there as well. The jersey was hooped stripes, yellow and green, a fashion catastrophe in the minds of visiting teams, bold and distinctive to us. I was 9 when I first stood on a rugby field, starting my first game as a reserve and being thrown in, unschooled and angular, as a prop. My Uncle Steve was the club bar manager and lived right next door, so every whānau celebration, birthdays, Christmas etc took place there. It was a second home.
In the clubrooms, holding pride of place in the trophy cabinet was memorabilia from a tour to Wales in the heydays of the 70’s. There was a poster with a Murray Ball like cartoon of a fierce jersey clad lion charging a stout mt wellington opponent, ready for battle. In the background is a scoreline. From my memory it was a narrow loss 11-3, a scoreline typical of those times, but still a treasured occasion for the club. The opposition team name is long forgotten but I vaguely recall the welsh double L’s and the team jersey being scarlet. I determined that every team from Wales adopted this colour, regardless of home and away rules. And therefore as a nation were just as parochial about rugby as we were.
Jump to 2009-ish, Wellington (not the Mount this time, but the city) and my good friend, playwright, Otago rugby fanatic and backyard cricket maestro, Hone Kouka, is chewing my ear off about the Rugby World Cup in 2011. I will argue we were watching the Blues vs Highlanders game for dramatic purposes. It’s a bitter rivalry with a bottle of tequila as an incentive if your team wins. He details a vision of the whole world coming to our shores and seeing Māori in all our grace and beauty. Hone can be quite ‘arty’ behind the sports ruffian exterior. His desire is to shine a bright light on one of our legends to the world and help our people. This is how I was introduced to George Nepia (Ngāti Rakaipaaka).
It’s the height of the Rugby World Cup 2011 and I’ve just finished a show. We were savvy enough to schedule the show outside of game times for rugby fans. Sitting in the foyer after the show are three people dressed in their Welsh team supporters gear. They’ve hung around to say thank you in person. All of them speak of George Nepia being one of the greats. They all look under 50 years old so I’m a little confused at how they know about George. Until one of the group explained that his father only ever talked about one non Welsh player being worthy enough to make a Wales team. I can see that this is the highest praise a rugby mad Welshman can give. George Nepia was that player.
It’s 2018 and I’m taking mum and my sister to a whānau hui at Manukau Rugby Club. It feels like I’m in enemy territory. Unreasonable perhaps but rugby bias is deeply ingrained so it goes without saying. There are some whānau I haven’t met before and some I have, according to my mum, who mutters “remember son, from that time back when we went to that place with such and such?”. “Um, okay Mum”. Uncle Wally, my granddad’s younger brother is here. He played lock for Manukau with my late grandfather, affectionately named Big John due to his hefty size and height. Granddad was the anchor on a champion tug-o-war team. Even now in his 80s, Uncle Wally still shows signs of rugby and freezing works in his solid frame. When the hui ends, I sit with Uncle Wally to chat and we talk rugby. Legend has it that Uncle Wally was close to being in the Māori All Blacks but missed out by 3 inches in height. He tells me he didn’t get picked because he plays for Manukau. Club politics. Rugby folklore is a taonga. He then points to a wall with two framed photographs on it. I walk over and take a look at them and see that one is of heavyweight boxing contender Tom Heeney. And the other is of a smiling George Nepia. My bias towards this club shifts…a little.
It’s 2005, and my loyalty is shot to pieces as I’m playing rugby for Ponsonby, playing away to University in Glen Innes, my childhood stomping ground. My mate Jason Te Kare is in G.I and comes to watch. Throughout the season, our team fluctuated with players turning up or not, which meant we’d have no reserves or even enough for a team. For this game we are short a player so I turn to Jason and ask if he’s ready to play. After borrowing shorts, chucking on a jersey and jumping on the wing he’s ready and focused. Jase is a deep thinker and analyser with a safe pair of hands, brave for his size and has a good rugby brain.
When he was directing me in rehearsals for I, George Nepia I was reminded of these traits. They transfer quite well to directing. He’d probably fancy himself as a rugby coach if he wasn’t so bloody good at making theatre.
Uncle Wally finally saw me perform I, George Nepia in 2014. Afterwards we talked and I learned that he and George were close friends. George had coached him when he was playing and he went to Wales in 1983 when George was in his 80s. Uncle Wally was there at Cardiff Arms Park when the entire stadium stood and applauded George. This old man. Still revered by this rugby mad nation on the other side of the world.
In performing I, George Nepia, I had created a ritual that I needed to do before every performance. Something that made me feel right and good. Just before I’d walk on stage, I’d quietly stand in the wings and whisper quietly thinking to the heavens.
Thanking George for this opportunity to share his life.
And thanking my grandfather Big John for giving me this life.