Joe Warbrick was the captain and undisputed leader of the New Zealand Natives' team which toured Britain in 1888-89, the first New Zealand representative rugby team to tour beyond Australia.
He was born in Rotorua in 1861, the third son of English immigrant Abraham Warbrick and his Māori wife, Nga Karauna Paerau, the daughter of a Ngāti Rangitihi chief. Four brothers would join him in the team that left New Zealand for Britain in the winter of 1888.
As a boarder at St Stephen's School for Native Boys in South Auckland, Joe acquired not only a good education but developed into a rugby player of enormous talent. Playing in bare feet, he could kick dropped goals from half-way. In 1877, aged 15, he turned out for Ponsonby in the Auckland club competition and soon caught the eye of the Auckland selectors. He was selected for the province the same year and remains the youngest player in New Zealand to play first-class rugby. He later played for Wellington and Hawke's Bay.
Warbrick was selected for the first New Zealand representative team to leave these shores in 1884, making his debut against Cumberland County at Parramatta in May. Because of his surname he is officially acknowledged as the 17th All Black (although the New Zealand representative team was not known by this name until 1905). He played in seven of the eight tour matches, scoring 12 points from three dropped goals.
Warbrick's New Zealand representative career was short because there was no national body (the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was not formed until 1892). The next official tour by a New Zealand team was not until 1893, by which time Warbrick had virtually given up playing. Seeking opportunities to play rugby beyond club and provincial level, he took matters into his own hands. He was one of the key figures behind the privately organised 1888-89 New Zealand Native football tour to Britain and Australia.
Warbrick was the captain, coach and selector for the trip, while Thomas Eyton was the tour’s promoter. The intention was to cash in on British fascination with ‘indigenous visitors from the Empire’ by sending a Māori rugby team to Britain. An 1868 tour by an Aboriginal cricket team from western Victoria had made money and Eyton hoped to emulate its success.
Warbrick scoured New Zealand for talented Māori players willing to commit themselves to more than a year of travel. In the end 21 were selected for the tour. Most had no provincial experience, but the team still managed to win seven of nine warm-up matches at home. Their critics gave them little chance overseas and as a result five Pākehā players were included in a bid to strengthen the squad. The touring party was renamed the ‘Natives', supposedly on the basis that all 26 team members were ‘New Zealand born'; in fact two had been born overseas.
Starting and finishing with an internal tour against New Zealand provincial teams, with fixtures in Australia and Britain in between, the Natives played a staggering 107 rugby matches (winning 78 of them) between June 1888 and August 1889. For good measure they also played nine games of Australian rules and two association football matches.
Joe Warbrick's contribution was severely hampered by an injury suffered at the start of the tour against Auckland, and he played only 21 matches. When the team returned to New Zealand in August 1889 he retired from playing (apart from a one-match comeback in 1894).
Warbrick later became a tour guide in the geyser fields of Rotorua. Geyser tourism had been given a major boost in 1900 when the Waimangu (‘black water’) geyser burst into life. It was the largest geyser recorded anywhere in the world between 1900 and 1904. In August 1903 it exploded unexpectedly, killing Warbrick and three tourists.
Although he only played a handful of games for New Zealand, Joe Warbrick's wider contribution to rugby was recognised in 2008 when he and the Natives team were inducted into the International Rugby Board’s Hall of Fame.
By Steve Watters