The team comes together
Joe Warbrick was the captain and one of the organisers of the Native touring team. The other was Thomas Eyton, who had served in the Armed Constabulary before joining the civil service. While visiting Britain for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 he had attended rugby matches in which the standard of play was ‘not vastly superior to that I had seen in New Zealand’. With no colony-wide body to regulate the game (the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was not formed until 1892), Eyton was free to promote a tour of Britain as a private venture.
As Greg Ryan has argued, in doing so Eyton sought to exploit the British fascination with indigenous visitors from the Empire, and especially sportspeople. His precedent was a tour by Aboriginal cricketers from western Victoria who played 47 matches in Britain in 1868. Profits had been made from this ‘impossible coffee-coloured team’. Eyton envisaged greater profits from a team ‘presenting the appearance and character of true Maori’ which would reaffirm belief in imperial ideology by the very act of competing against representatives of the imperial power on an apparently level playing field. As The Times was to editorialise soon after the Natives arrived, ‘the colonising race that can imbue the aboriginal inhabitants of the colonised countries with a love for its national games, would seem to have solved the problem of social amalgamation in those countries’.
In the autumn of 1888 Warbrick scoured New Zealand for talented Māori rugby players willing to commit themselves to more than a year of travel. He selected four of his own brothers, including the Rotorua tourist guide Alfred Warbrick. The tour’s financial success would depend on putting together a team strong enough to win most of its matches. In rugby – unlike cricket – this required at the very least a first 15 of competent players.
Of the 21 Māori who eventually toured, only a third had represented their provinces. Five Pākehā players were added to strengthen the team. The average age of the tourists was about 22. Nearly all were single and had poor job prospects. An expenses-paid trip to Britain must have appealed to them.