When talk comes around to New Zealand Rugby’s first Maori stars, Tom Ellison and Joe Warbrick are usually and fairly the two names brought to the fore. However, to many of those who possessed a living memory of late 19th century Rugby, the standout performer was a man who contributed to the rise of both Ellison and Warbrick, but is himself now long forgotten: Jack Taiaroa.

Jack Taiaroa - NZ team 1884
Jack Taiaroa – NZ team 1884

Teone Wiwi Taiaroa (aka John “Jack” Grey Taiaroa) was born in 1864 in a Maori “kaik” (undefended village) at Otakou Heads on the Otago Peninsula (South Island of New Zealand). The area is known today as Taiaroa Head, in honour of Te Matenga Taiaroa, a 19th century Ngai Tahu chief – Jack’s grandfather.

Jack’s father, Hori Kerei Taiaroa, was a prominent member of the New Zealand Parliament, elected to the House of Representatives as the member for Southern Maori, where he continually pushed to ensure that earlier promises made in the purchasing of Ngai Tahu lands were honoured.

Jack attended Otago Boys’ High School achieving a fair scholastic record that hinted at his promising intellectual aptitude. After leaving school (1883) he undertook training as a solicitor, serving articles in the office of Robert Stout (who the following year became Premier of New Zealand). By the end of the decade Jack was a solicitor in practice in Hastings (Hawke’s Bay).

As well-known as Jack was because of his “chiefly rank” and emergence as one of the colony’s first Maori solicitors, it was for his deeds as a Rugby footballer that he was most famous.

While still in the final year at high school, the 17 year old Taiaroa joined the Dunedin FC, showing much promise amongst the older hands of the game – the Otago Witness, early in the autumn of 1881 writing:

“Immediately after the kick-off Taiaroa made one of his startling rushes, covering a lot of ground, and the Blues had to touchdown… and Taiaroa excelled behind the scrummage. The latter, with a little coaching, ought to become a first-rate half-back. The High School has turned out some really good players lately.”

Later that season his continued striking form culminated with selection in the Otago provincial team against neighbouring Canterbury. Given the coastal port of Dunedin was at the time New Zealand’s largest city (on the tail-end of the Otago Gold Rush), the rise of the schoolboy Taiaroa into the Rugby limelight was impressive.

Taiaroa stood at 178cms tall, weighing about 82kgs – a modest physique by the scale of today’s footballers, but for the 1880s size alone would have made Jack a difficult proposition to tackle. Along with his prodigious kicking talents (he could punt and drop kick the ball long distances with either foot), one contemporary described him as “an India rubber man, nuggety, strong, fast.”

Taiaroa recognised his advantages, often preferring to run at and through defenders, rather than around them as was the norm for the time. A writer to The Daily Telegraph in Sydney in 1901 offered:

“There has been no other player like Taiaroa. He threw his assailants off with his hips as a steamer hurls the waves back from her bows. It was fascinating, said the men on his side, to see him glide and bump his way through a knot of exponents; a distinctly opposite view was held by his opponents.”

In 1882 Taiaroa was an automatic selection in the Otago representative team, and played a starring role in the home side’s win over New South Wales, who were on their first tour of New Zealand. The Otago Witness:

“Taiaroa was, of course, the hero of the day, and at the close of the game a few enthusiasts mounted him on their shoulder and carried him off the field. The Otago captain was also similarly honoured.”

The Waratahs (though not yet known by that name) returned home to Sydney, and word soon spread through the Rugby community of this mysterious Maori footballer who had seemingly mastered the Rugby game.

Indeed, news of the feats of Taiaroa reached all the way to London, triggering for the first time the previously fanciful notion that perhaps one day a New Zealand Rugby team would visit England. London’s The Sporting Life:

“It will be strange if Macaulay’s New Zealander [from a poem by James Brunton Stephens] should be realised in the shape of a footballer. It is quite within the bounds of possibility that in course of time we may have to chronicle the doings of a New Zealand football team on English grounds. The New Zealand theory, if I may use such an expression, has been started by the account of a recent trip of Sydney Rugby players to New Zealand, taken from The Sydney Mail. According to this paper the New South Welshmen had a jovial time of it. They generally met with success, but at Otago they found their match, and they were easily beaten by a goal and three tries. The victory of the local team was mainly attributable to the fine game played at ‘half’ by a young Maori named Taiaroa. It is said that he is only 19 years of age. He is described as wonderfully quick on his feet, very difficult to tackle, and a first-rate drop and place kick.”

Taiaroa’s 1883 season was hampered by a fractured collar-bone, received in a trial match for the Otago team. The Otago Witness noted “There is not a footballer in Otago but will regret Taiaroa’s absence from the team: ‘Jack’ is undoubtedly the most popular exponent of the game in Otago.”

He returned to the field early in the 1884 season, with keen judges of the game noting that “he plays with great determination; and, although he has had his collar-bone broken…this does not seem in the least to affect his nerve.”

In May 1884 it was revealed at a NSWRU meeting that a New Zealand team would be coming to Sydney later in the season – the team included Taiaroa and fellow Maori, Joe Warbrick.

Notably though, the NSWRU chose to mention just one player when it announced the news of the visit: “The wonderful Maori ‘Taiaroa’ is to accompany the team.” Taiaroa did more than merely meet expectations during the tour. William McKenzie (who played 20 games for New Zealand in the 1890s) wrote in 1907:

“Taiaroa was the greatest of them all…Taiaroa played in all the matches in the tour of the ’84 team, and it is understood that he also scored in every match. He might have scored more tries but for the fact that on many occasions he ran himself clean out.”

Scoring nine tries in the tour’s nine games is an amazing feat given the rarity of tries at the time, and that three of the matches were against NSW. His try tally was twice more than any of his team mates. In a report of the tour’s opening game (against Cumberland at Parramatta) it was recorded that “Taiaroa…made the run of the day, passing nearly the whole of the opposing team, and grounding the ball between the posts.”

“Pursuit of the Maori” (Sydney newspaper drawing of Taiaroa during the 1884 tour)
“Pursuit of the Maori” (Sydney newspaper drawing of Taiaroa during the 1884 tour)

After the next game (a win over NSW by one try and two goals to nil) The Sydney Mail wrote at length on Taiaroa:

“For the first half-an-hour’s play Taiaroa was not conspicuous by his exertions, but after that he wired-in with a vengeance, and was nearly always on the ball. His great strength, his wonderful agility, the dexterity with which he picked up the ball in the loose scrimmages, and the way in which he slipped through the savage grasps of his opponents, were soon noticed by the onlookers, and experienced by the players, who, when they saw the Maori footballer in possession of the leather, raised the cry of ‘Look out for Taiaroa!’.

Time after time Taiaroa got clear out of a loose scrimmage and was collared by Walker, Baylie, Vaughan, or Deane when near the goal line of New South Wales, but failure seemed to give his greater vigour for each succeeding rush. After ten minutes adjournment the game again waxed warm, Taiaroa being more prominent than ever on the ball. It seemed to have an affinity for his hands, for every few minutes that passed saw him careering through his foes with the leather tucked under one arm, while he fended off his assailants with the other. Soon after the resumption of play he picked the ball up from a loose scrimmage and, eluding a dozen clutching hands, sped onwards towards the enemy’s line. Once he dropped the ball, but, though hotly pursued, he caught it again on the bound, and touched it down [for a try] after a severe struggle.”

One of Taiaroa’s team mates wrote home:

“Taiaroa was the hero of the day, his running, dodging, and collaring fairly astonishing both players and spectators who duly meted out their applause to this ‘prince of footballers’.”

As if to prove his all round game, against Newcastle in a match played in heavy rain throughout, he kicked two booming drop goals in an easy victory.

It was while in Newcastle that the Maori “of kindly nature and pleasant ways” seemed to for the only time during the tour find an off-field difficulty…though he contained the situation readily enough. The incident was revealed decades later at a Sydney reception for the visiting Springboks in 1921, where Theo Pienaar, the South African captain, had spoken in Dutch. That caused NSWRU President, Sir Henry Braddon (a member of the 1884 New Zealand team) to share with the gathering “a story of the famous Maori footballer, Jack Taiaroa”:

“The Mayor of the city insisted upon Taiaroa making a speech in Maori. The footballer did not like the idea, but at last acceded. With the exception of two present none knew what Taiaroa was saying. The two men who did had difficulty in suppressing their laughter. Later it was discovered that Taiaroa’s speech was the Lord’s Prayer in Maori!”

In the days leading up the final tour game (again versus NSW) street posters were struck up all over Sydney town:

Final Appearance

The following few years after the NSW tour were not so stellar for Taiaroa. As is the lot for every Rugby star sooner or later, as one reporter put it, “Jack’s fame has preceded him, and consequently made him the mark of all opponents.”

Amidst the occasional acts of brilliance, his form was affected by repeated moving back and forth between towns in Otago, Canterbury and Hawke’s Bay, dropping in and out of club and representative teams along the way – the latter often brought about because “He has failed to attend practices, and been very uncertain in his movements.” In September 1886 Taiaroa was chosen to play for Canterbury against NSW at Lancaster Park, but at the last minute made himself unavailable.

He also for a short time had a serious off-field controversy to confront, when a Christchurch newspaper ran with headline that Taiaroa was on “A Charge of Forgery”, accused of forging the name of his father to a promissory note. The Poverty Bay Herald thought it was being amusing by suggesting “He has often been in ‘goal,’ and it is to be hoped he may not get into ‘gaol.’” His home town paper though soon carried the welcome news that “Jack Taiaroa came out of the alleged forgery case against him with flying colours.”

As far as Rugby was concerned, as haphazard as his playing career had become, he still undoubtedly possessed the necessary talent, as a profile in 1887 by the Hawke’s Bay Herald said of him:

“J. Taiaroa. The Taiaroa… good natured, and popular. He is said to have lost some of his dash which made his name a terror to Otago’s opponents of old, and caused the cry “look out for Taiaroa” to raise the New South Wales players to desperation. If he has lost the dash, however, he has acquired in its stead a wonderfully easy and effective style of picking up and gliding in which makes him very dangerous to his opponents.”

In September 1888 Taiaroa captained Hawke’s Bay against the visiting British Lions team, led by Blackheath FC’s Andrew Stoddart.

He was also involved with Joe Warbrick in the early work towards the 1888/89 New Zealand Native Rugby team that toured Australia and England. Warbrick had been harbouring the dream for quite some time – it may well have begun following the 1883 story in London’s The Sporting Life (carried in New Zealand newspapers) which speculated on the possibility of a tour in the wake of Taiaroa’s emergence.

Taiaroa initially intended to take part in the groundbreaking tour, and convinced his brother Richard (Dick) and cousin Tom Ellison to join the “all Maori” team with him. Jack’s early support for Warbrick’s project gave it valuable endorsement in the eyes of the Maori community.

Ellison was just three years younger than Jack, and lived in the same village. In his book The Art of Rugby Football (published in 1902), Ellison wrote that his first awareness of Rugby came from talk of his cousin’s on-field exploits. Ellison too went on to become a solicitor.

Jack opted to drop out of the Native tour, citing an inability to obtain leave from his work as a solicitor (other accounts suggest he was completing University studies). He did though make himself available to play for the Native team against Wellington before they sailed to Melbourne, but only on the proviso that the rest of the side was All-Maori too (a number of non-Maori players had been added to the tour party). Taiaroa’s terms weren’t met, and he declined to play. This incident hints that the composition of the Native squad was perhaps what kept Jack from being involved, rather than work issues.

Taiaroa represented Hawke’s Bay again in 1889, but his playing days soon faded away. He was often found as referee in local Rugby games, and turned to competing in athletic carnivals, finishing as runner-up in the long jump contest at the 1893 colony championships. Jack was also a more than competent club cricketer.

By the turn of the century Taiaroa had returned home to Otago, where he lived with his wife and six children. The Otago Witness wrote of him in 1902:

“Jack Taiaroa, the hero of many a hard fought game between Otago and Canterbury and sister provinces is now a resident at the Maori Kaik following pastoral pursuits. Taiaroa is as keen as ever on football. Although not taking an active part he coaches the young natives at the Kaik in the manly game of which in his day he was a great exponent.”

Tragically, Jack Taiaroa drowned after a boating mishap on New Year’s Eve 1908. Returning in a motor launch with friends to the “Kaik” around 11pm, in attempting to step from the boat onto, what was apparently an always treacherous landing platform, he slipped and fell into the Otago Harbour’s raging flood tide and current. Despite being a strong swimmer, he was quickly swept away.

The Otago Witness of 22 January 1908 paying lasting tribute:

“..but what endeared him more than anything to the hearts and memories of pakeha and Maori alike was his prowess as an all-round athlete. ‘Jack’ Taiaroa, it will be remembered, was in his day not only one of the best footballers in Otago, but in New Zealand. In those days it was the chief ambition of the rising generation to be able to play football like Jack Taiaroa.”

© Sean Fagan