This week Tasman Rugby Union are announcing a small name change with potentially huge consequences.
The mako shark is found in waters throughout the world, but its name comes from here – a Māori word referring to both the shark and its teeth, with variations within New Zealand (mango in some dialects) and other Polynesian languages (mago in Samoan and mano in Hawaiian).
Traditionally mako teeth were highly prized chiefly adornments, as necklaces and earrings – the mako was admired for its ferocity and dominance and so the power of the shark was transferred to the wearer. Some brave men would drag the shark by its tail to shore in order not to damage the teeth. After the arrival of Europeans it became fashionable to decorate a mako-tooth earring with red sealing wax and ribbons.
The prevalence of mako in the warm waters of the Cook Strait and coastal waterways of Te Tau Ihu at the top of the South Island therefore made them a natural avatar for a rugby team. But in 2005, during development of the newly-formed Tasman Rugby Union (a merger between the Nelson Bays and Marlborough unions) in preparation for the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup, something got lost in translation.
Initial conversations had talked about the Tasman Mako – ‘mako’ being the correct plural of the Māori name.
“There was no doubt correspondence took place with iwi informing the board that it should be Mako with no ‘s’,” Tasman Rugby Union’s CEO Tony Lewis tells me. “But the group of people setting up the Tasman rugby union at that stage were under pressure for plural-ness – Nelson and Marlborough trying to come together as one – and so they decided to use the ‘s’. That was their rationale behind it. They were aware that there were some issues but not as aware as they should have been, or didn’t give a damn to be honest.”
And so the Tasman Makos entered the ranks of provincial unions. To date they’ve produced two All Blacks and 11 Māori All Blacks.
It wasn’t until Lewis as the new CEO tried to set up a Tasman Māori side and get to the bottom of the lack of iwi engagement that the ramifications of the decision were made clear.
“I decided to do a review of our relationship. We set up a working group with two kaumātua. They made it pretty clear to us that nothing could be done at an iwi level until we looked at the mispronunciation, the misuse of the Māori language around the ‘s’.”
“We went away from that meeting gobsmacked because we didn’t really know.”
Mana whenua spokesman Barney Thomas (Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Tama, Te Ātiawa, Ngāi Tahu) remembers the frustration of having their wishes ignored. “I was asked the question back then of the spelling. I said there shouldn’t be an ‘s’ but they had already decided.”
“We didn’t oppose it in the end but we knew long term it would be an issue.”
He felt it showed a lack of respect – and he wasn’t alone. “A really good friend of mine who’s now passed away, he was the kaumatua of the All Blacks. He always jibed me about the ‘s’ on the Mako. He said, ‘until you fix that we will know from outside your region that your relationship with them is non-existent’.”
Lewis says after that meeting he presented a case to their board almost immediately asking to drop the ‘s’.
“They all voted yes and said they didn’t have a problem with it. I spoke to Scotty [Stevenson] and Ken Laban about it to get some feedback from a commentators’ perspective and virtually from that day forward Scotty stopped using ‘Makos’. Ken’s gone that way, Tony Johnson’s gone that way, and Jenny-May Clarkson, she also uses ‘Mako’.”
Thomas calls it “water under the bridge now” and says the change has the full support of the eight iwi of Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-ā-Māui – Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Koata, Rangitāne, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Tama, Te Āti Awa and also mātāwaka – Māori that live in but don’t whakapapa to the area.
“There’s a lot of iwi politics in the top of the South. This issue has actually helped us all to work together. It’s the first thing we’ve all agreed on,” he laughs.
They’re not the first sports team to make culturally sensitive changes to branding – in 1998 the Auckland Warriors were sold to a consortium that included majority investor Tainui, who straightened the tongue on the Warriors logo, as a curved tongue is believed to be cursed.
But it’s not just a “cosmetic change” adds Les Edwards, Tasman’s commercial and marketing manager.
“22% – 25% percent of our players are Māori, depending on the age group. We wanted operationally to figure out how we can engage with the whole family. What we’re finding is that some of our young Māori players under 10 are very good and very dominant, but some haven’t got dad at home or much supervision at home at all. They get to their teenage years and they’re dropping out. It’s about mentoring as well, engaging parents, aunties and uncles and grandparents to coach or just generally be engaged with the child’s rugby.”
He says they’re looking at partnering with iwi to employ a community education officer in the new year. “We’ve seen this programme in Australia with surf-life saving. It won’t just be about rugby, it’ll also be about making sure kids get to school, that they’re supported there so they can be their best on the field as well.”
The new name of course comes with a new shirt – one originally designed for a Tasman Māori team. “It’s a beautiful design that incorporates all eight iwi,” Lewis tells me proudly. “We’re going to play in that for the next two years minimum, probably forever.”
According to a Massey University study published in November by former Black Ferns captain and New Zealand Rugby Māori Board chair Dr Farah Palmer, the cultural identity of individual rugby players in a team changes the way the team plays. The research showed the Māori All Blacks, a team of players who share the same cultural heritage, are more playful and spontaneous and take more risks than the Japanese national team, which has a mix of nationalities. A contributing factor is that the players “enjoy the opportunity to celebrate and explore their Māori identity in a rugby context.”
Palmer calls the decision by Tasman rugby “wonderful.”
“It shows respect for Māori and a name they carry proudly. It’s great they have the confidence and support to make a change that enhances their identity and mana in the community.”
Barney Thomas thinks building on that can only mean good things for Tasman rugby. “I think next year we’ll have a crack at that top spot again now with everyone working together.”
It remains to be seen if New Zealand’s national rugby league side the Kiwis will follow suit, or the Hawkes Bay Tuis, but here’s hoping at the very least it prompts a conversation within other organisations about what example they want to set for their young Māori players in the future.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.