Joe Warbrick was the captain and undisputed leader of the New Zealand Natives' tour of 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 Maori wife, Nga Karauna Paerau, the daughter of a Ngati Rangithi 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 drop goals from half-way. In 1877, as a 15 year old, 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 Sydney in May. He is officially acknowledged as the 17th All Black (although the All Black name itself was not officially used until 1905). He scored 12 points in his seven matches, all of them from drop goals.
Warbrick's short New Zealand career was due largely to the absence of a 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 Maori 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 Maori 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 matches at home. Their critics gave them little chance overseas and as a result five Pakeha 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'; two were in fact 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 0f them) between June 1888 and August 1889. For good measure they also played eight games of Australian rules and two soccer 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 in August 1889 he retired from playing (apart from a brief 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 a party of three tourists.
Although he only played a handful of games for New Zealand, Joe Wabrick's wider contribution to rugby was recognised in 2008 when he was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame.