It wasn’t the All Blacks or Wallabies who were the first overseas team to tour the Home Nations, it was in fact the original Maori All Blacks, then the New Zealand Natives, in 1888-89. The reason the All Blacks wear their globally recognised kit is that they adopted it from the Maoris – they’d previously worn blue. And no prizes for guessing who first delivered an iconic on-field haka before kick-off.
“Playing for the Maori All Blacks is big,” says 26-year-old Latimer, who’s represented the full All Blacks six times. “When we pull on the Maori jumper, we carry the people with us – the Maori people, our family and our friends.”
At 101kg, Latimer is an intimidating figure on the field, but he speaks to TNT in a gentle, almost-whisper – it could be that it’s early morning and he’s about to hit the training park, or more likely that he just prefers to do his talking on the field. It’s a cliché, but that’s the Maori way.
“Being a Maori All Black, it’s not just representing a team,” he says. “It adds a whole other dimension.”
Their opponents – Premiership Rugby giants Leicester Tigers, an RFU Championship side and Canada – are in for tough days at the office. Latimer says his side’s been preparing like any Test team would, maybe with a greater sense of unity. “I know most of the boys,” he says. “I either played with or against them throughout the years. But it’s great to be playing with them in a team like this. We’re all from different tribes but we’re together here. For one cause we live and for this cause we’re a team on tour together.”
The Bay of Plenty product says they’re here to win games, but also entertain crowds. Maori teams are renowned for their open style of play. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re not taking this tour lightly, but we’re coming over to showcase our brand of rugby,” Latimer says. “Hopefully the weather plays ball and allows us to do that. Maybe the opposition has a different idea and don’t allow us to, but we’ll do our best.”
The Maori have chosen their young skipper well, especially if they want free-flowing football. He has experience beyond his age and started out in Sevens.
“I’ve been around for a while,” he says when asked about the leadership challenge, careful not to talk himself up. “I’ve been in a professional environment since 2004, so that’s alright, I’m comfortable with that. It’s a complete honour.”
Latimer was 17 when he first represented New Zealand in Sevens in 2004 and won a gold medal at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. Sevens will be an Olympic sport in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “That’s exciting for rugby,” he says, without a hint of temptation – he’s doing just fine in the premium form of the game. His Waikato-based Chiefs were last year’s Super 15 champions after finishing 10th and 11th the previous two seasons. He speaks as though the turnaround was simple. “We got a new training facility, a few new players, new coaches,” he says. “There was a bit of a change in ideas and the boys just got stuck into their work and responded well to it all. And yeah, we got the rewards.”
Lats, as he’s known, is also eyeing off a return to the All Blacks jersey, but is in the unfortunate position of playing the same openside flanker role as a certain Richie McCaw.
“I have ambitions for that,” he admits. “But you’ve just got to be there or thereabouts. You’ve got to play some quality rugby and keep doing your job whenever you go on the field. Keep your head down and keep trucking on.”
But for now, his mind is on going into battle with his Maori brothers, who have been connecting on and off the field in their brief camp in Auckland and since they got to the UK last week. Their arrival at Heathrow was a sign of things to come, with fans welcoming them with a haka. “We’ve been working well in the training we’ve had together and we’ve been learning some hakas,” he says.
“We’ve picked up a few songs that some of the boys have never heard and they love it, hey.”
Coach Jamie Joseph says bonding is more important than training for the team, as their short time together doesn’t allow proper tactical preparation. “The best thing we can do to come together is through our Maoritanga,” he says. “That’s what’s unique about this team. There’ll be a lot of singing, a few hakas and not much training.”
With sing-alongs filling their flight from Auckland, they’ve also prepared a unique haka for their tour matches. While it’ll look like a fearsome battle cry – and is, in a sense – the meaning of the movement, stamping and rhythmic, tuneful chanting goes deeper. “There’s always a message in a haka, but the actions and how you deliver it are just as important,” Latimer says. The haka his team has planned will be intimidating, but the message written by the team’s kaumatua (tribal elder) Te Whetu Tipiwai is anything but angry. “The main message translates to ‘reach for the stars and you shall hit the mountains’, that is basically the gist,” Latimer says. “There are other messages and the big actions are important. You make them hit the mark and make them scary. Then you are ready to give your all.”