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Shoestring Champions – Peter Joseph and the Aotearoa Māori Sevens Team

Former Aotearoa Māori Sevens Team members, current New Zealand Black Ferns captain Sarah Hirini (née Goss) and international sevens and 15s player and now referee Selica Winiata with the Roma Trophy in 2012. 

  • By Adam Julian

“We only had a few weeks’ notice and had to find a lot of money. We got turned down by the charitable trusts because we weren’t a national team endorsed by New Zealand Rugby. My wife Shelly and I were thinking of moving so we put our house on the market. We put in just over $64,000. We got to Hong Kong and won the tournament,” Peter Joseph (Te Arawa: Tuhourangi; Ngati Pikiao; Ngati Rangitihi) recalls of a mad dash to send the Aotearoa Māori women’s sevens team to the Hong Kong Sevens in 2002.

The Hong Kong Sevens was supposed to be a “one-off” but Aotearoa Māori grew into such a juggernaut that by 2012 they’d provided nine players for the New Zealand Sevens team that won the inaugural World Rugby Sevens series – including Sarah Hirini (nee Goss), captain of the Black Ferns Sevens Olympic gold medal winning team in Tokyo in 2021.

The Aotearoa Māori had been a local success for a handful of years but how did an international opportunity arise?

“I was approached by New Zealand Rugby in 2002 asking me if I’d be interested in coaching a New Zealand Sevens team. It didn’t happen because it was World Cup year and the remaining money for women’s rugby went to the Black Ferns,” Joseph said.

“The US coach Emil Signes, who I’d met when we beat his USA team at the Whangarei International 7’s tournament, asked if I could take our Aotearoa team to Hong Kong. He’d taken American teams all over the world and was afraid sevens might fall off the map without a New Zealand presence.”

Ironically USA was beaten 14-7 in the final, Aotearoa Māori scoring 159 unanswered points en-route to the decider.

It wouldn’t be the last time the team caused a stir, but what compels a man to sell his house to support a women’s rugby team?

“We were really lucky. We always flew Cathay Pacific who’d hold bookings right up until we had the money and without fail greeted the girls upon departure. When the Māori Party went into coalition with National, $25,000 covered costs for a tournament. We had a number of people give time, money and resources generously.

“I guess many people had faith in the team and could see the pathways it gave women with international travel and play. Many came back and went into higher education. I’m very proud of them all.

“One player I first picked in 2004 was a standout for commitment. When I told this player she was selected she came back ten minutes later and said ‘do you know I’m 24?’ I said no I didn’t but congratulations.

“Then she asked. ‘Do you still want me in the team?’ I said age has nothing to do with selection. She then told me I’ve got two kids and again I said that’s great. It turned out that had prevented her from making another national team because apparently it was too hard. Watching her grow as a person was awesome. She went to the Polytechnic, graduated and has a good job. She left school at 16.”

Joseph and Aotearoa Māori have their roots in the Bay of Plenty. He was born in Rotorua, the son of a working class Irish mother and Maori father. He recalls “Mum was always doing things for other people and cats,” while Dad grew up not being allowed to speak Te Reo at school and had changed his surname Hohepa to the Pakeha version in order to progress into management with the New Zealand Forestry Service. He’d been warned a Maori surname would count against him.

Joseph attended Edmund Rice College and “battled through the grades.” A shift to Wellington saw him play for the Marist St Pat’s Under-21’s while working for the IRD. He then progressed into the New Zealand Clerical Union returning to the Bay where he started coaching his nephew’s team at John Paul College. Receiving hidings in most games led Joseph to lure leading talent to Waikite. He coached the Colts who soon became “a gun side” and started his association with sevens. In a golden era for Bay of Plenty, he coached the Waikite men’s sevens team featuring the New Zealand greats Peter Woods and Martin (Boogie) Jones to a number of tournament victories. In 2000 Bay of Plenty women were national champions.

“I really like Sevens, the full width of the field is used, and being from the Bay freezing practices on a Tuesday and Thursday night never agreed with me.

“I started in women’s Sevens after I went to a Volcanix game to help the coach select the rep side. I saw Black Fern Kellie Kiwi play. Wow. If ever there was a Sevens player she was it. Then I started looking at the whole team imagining the prospects.”

The Aotearoa Māori team started in 2000 but it wasn’t abundantly clear who was driving the off-field leadership.

“It was done through Bay of Plenty Māori Rugby. We were told it was being run by New Zealand Rugby but that wasn’t really the case. There were lots of arguments over who should control it. Darryl Suasua was supportive to an extent as long as it didn’t infringe on his New Zealand team. I had to draw players from the Māori tournaments which were funded by New Zealand Rugby.”

A Whangarei tournament featuring two New Zealand selections, USA,  Pasifika and provincial opposition soon proved the merits of the team.

“We went in there unknown, underrated. As soon as we beat New Zealand A in pool play we started to change attitudes. In the final we beat New Zealand B something like 40-5. It showed there were good players from outside the recognised provinces.”

The Aotearoa Māori started in the Bay of Plenty colours, swapping to black after beating New Zealand A. The gear was supplied by Black Fern Tammi Wilson who had contacts in the apparel business. Aotearoa Māori won all four Whangarei sevens tournaments.

Before the 2003 Hong Kong Sevens the attitude of tournament organisers was that Aotearoa Māori was a racist selection and couldn’t win again.

“We were told we shouldn’t be going because we were a racist team so the invitation went to the Wild Ducks, a team Darryl Suasua had previously taken to the tournament. We were told after we won in 2002 we wouldn’t be invited back so we protested and they told us you’re going to have to prove you’re not a team built on race. We took Stephanie Mortimer from Canterbury who is as blonde as you can get. What a great athlete. We won again and that quickly settled the race issue.”

Mortimer would become a Black Fern and win the New Zealand Women’s Player of the Year award in 2004. In fact, Aotearoa Maori became legendary for developing elite talent.

“I remember picking a teenage girl, Selica Winiata and people complaining she’s too small. I saw her get absolutely smashed at Nationals playing for Manawatu when she was 15, but what I liked about her is she just kept getting up and, look at her now.

The Aotearoa Māori Sevens Team after winning the Hong Kong Sevens in 2003.

“Honey Hireme joined the Bay of Plenty Sevens team when she was young and wow. Her father was a league man. He hated rugby so much he thought he’d wind up the neighbours by mowing the lawns during an All Blacks test. He went for the whole test. Later when we went to Italy the TV crews couldn’t get enough of her. She was, and is, a superstar”

Hireme introduced Amy Turner to the team and she played at the Whangarei and Hong Kong tournaments in 2004 before moving to Australia. In 2016 she became a gold medallist with Australia in Sevens at the Rio Olympics. An ex-miner, she won a League World Cup in 2017 too.

“Physically and mentally PJ took my game to a whole new level. Sevens is a different beast to league with all the fitness but he never doubted our rugby knowledge and let us play,” Hireme said.

“The way the team hooked you in was addictive. The girls became your sisters and we stayed in touch years after it happened. PJ helped many girls through hard times. We were trailblazers really.”

Still there was difficulty in Hong Kong winning acceptance with administrators. An age dispute over a player in 2006 actually had a genesis three years earlier.

“Shelley and I were heading over to the Mount to have brunch when I saw there was a tournament in Paengaroa. It was a school girls event. I got talking to a woman from Hawkes Bay about her team and she recommended I checkout one of the players in the Taradale team. It was Sharn Waru. She was only 12 at the time but, man, she had amazing skills and that was the end of Shelley’s brunch.

“In 2006 Sharn was 15 and I picked her to go to Hong Kong. There had been no issue over age whatsoever in previous years but all of a sudden they had a managers meeting and said they’re not going to let Sharn play because it’s an over-18 event.

“We had a stand up argument with the tournament organisers. In that meeting there was an IRB guy in the US delegation from Guam who said, “I’m not aware of that rule. There’s a 17-year old playing for China.

“We gave them a face saver and said if we get a clearance from the NZRFU would you let her play?  It was a mad rush to get something through that represented a clearance but the deal closer was that Tana Umaga was her uncle and he had sent through a message to Sharn congratulating her and wishing her all the best for the tournament.”

Waru scored the winning try in the final against Australia “face palming” Black Ferns legend Anna Richards who later joined the Maori team for tournaments in London, Amsterdam and San Diego.

Starting in 1986, Keith Quinn called 26 Hong Kong Sevens tournaments. He spoke highly of the Aotearoa Māori.

“The women played across the road at the racecourse until the final. It was on TV one year and the producers said’ Keith you’re the Kiwi, the final is yours. I like to prepare thoroughly before any broadcast but I knew nothing about these girls. A lot of the male teams wouldn’t let me near the dressing room before games so I was really nervous about approaching women but they let me in and told me a heap about each player. I think it was the best commentary I did of the Hong Kong Sevens that year. The girls were outstanding.”

Māori TV also ran a feature in 2006, ‘Shoestring champions.’ It showed training footage because they couldn’t afford rights to tournament footage let alone sending a reporter to Asia.

Hong Kong’s stuffy administrations though had enough.

“It was a battle for us every year, especially as it got to year three and four. I think it became a bit of an embarrassment for them. We weren’t considered a national team but we were cleaning up the tournament. In 2007, the last year, we went unbeaten 195-0.”

It’s only Rock ‘n Roll. Peter Joseph with Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood.

Between 2002 and 2007 Aotearoa Māori had won 33 matches in a row and were the only female national sevens team. The Black Ferns Sevens was officially born in 2008. Aotearoa Māori were far from finished.

In 2008 they were so highly regarded by England they played the first ever women’s seven match at Twickenham. It was before the men’s final of the London Sevens and in front of Olympics organisers keen to see if the women ‘measured up.’ The Maori were beaten after the full time whistle.

A tournament in Amsterdam beforehand had really stretched fitness with the team not warned about the gruelling schedule prior.

“We played three warm up games which we won and then another 10 games in two days. We were serious but what we hadn’t been told was that it was largely a social tournament. We were playing these teams from Sweden who were downing a jug behind the goalposts every time they conceded a try. Eventually we won nine games and got to the semis where Selica Winiata got injured. We lost the final to England who’d played less games and that left a really sour taste.”

In 2009, the first year of the women’s World Cup, America paid the team’s airfares over to the IRB San Diego 7’s and then to go into a week-long camp in Arkansas to help them with their World Cup preparation.

“Three days out we didn’t have a team and ended up taking nine players including a very young Aroha Savage who later became a top Black Fern. She blew the opposition away in the first two games, but she was not 7’s fit and faded as the tournament progressed. We lost to the USA in the semi-final.

“When we got to Arkansas, I knew that the only way we could compete against the USA was to cram in as much fitness training as possible in the week, so I had the team doing Hennie Mullers. It worked – we won the three match exhibition series with a draw and two wins. I was so proud of our team, not only did we win in front of the New Zealand Ambassador and his wife but, it was such a gutsy effort. We only had eight players.”

The Roma International Sevens has been held every year since 2002 and was an important event in promoting the merits of the female game. Between 2010 and 2012, Aotearoa Māori won the tournament each year – 13 games wins’ in a row. A young teenager from Feilding High School, Sarah Hirini, arrived on the international stage.

“I had to submit an official report after the tournament and I had Sarah as a playmaker and she was a good player but we already had three of them. We were at a training camp in Rotorua doing scrum practice and Honey Hireme came away screaming ‘Jesus PJ’ I can’t scum against her. I decided to put Gossy in the forwards and after that thought, ‘yep, I’ve made the right call. I later told New Zealand coach Sean Horan she’ll captain your team at the Olympics.”

Aotearoa Māori won 14 of the 18 tournaments they played between 2000 and 2012, beating 23 different countries with 34 of the 81 women to represent the side either Black Ferns or Black Ferns Sevens representatives. Counties-Manukau was the most represented province with 15 players followed by Auckland (14) and Bay of Plenty (13). Today Joseph is chief executive of TIASA Te Hononga, representing non-teaching staff employed across the New Zealand tertiary Institute, Polytechnic Sector and Whare Wananga.

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