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George Nepia made his New Zealand debut 100 years ago, but was he really an All Black at just 16 years of age?

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Roar Guru
24th April, 2024
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If the stories are true, George Nepia, famed All Black fullback, was selected for the All Blacks on their “Invincibles” tour as a sixteen-year-old player.

In an interview with Michael Romanos, Nepia revealed he was born in 1908 rather than 1905 or 1904 as some records show.

In the interview he stated that he raised his age by three years to ensure he made the All Black trials in 1924, knowing that selectors would not pick a 16-year-old teenager.

Nepia also advised that players should be picked at an early age if they have mastered basic rugby skills.

Mental strength plays an important part in whether a player is successful at a younger age, Bryan Williams and Jonah Lomu were both nineteen when selected for the All Blacks with Williams making the more successful debut. Albeit Jonah took another year to confirm his potential.

To play on rugby’s big stage it is more important to be mentally ready than physically with a strong family background playing a key role.

Nepia’s father was a strong disciplinarian who once ran onto the field to reprimand his son who was not playing well. Think of Tiger Woods and his father.

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George Nepia was described by historian Philippa Mein Smith as being “New Zealand rugby’s first superstar,” and his legacy lives on in those who remember him and his achievements.

Nepia’s reputation was sealed on the Invincibles tour to the UK, France and Canada in 1924 when he played in all thirty-two unbeaten games.

Along with Mark Nicholls, the Brownlie brothers Cyril and Maurice, Cliff Porter and Bert Cooke, Nepia became a distinguished member of the tour.

Playing all matches on tour was a great achievement, with Captain Porter not wanting to select anyone else.

Nepia’s attributes were highlighted on the tour, impressing observers with his crash tackling, strong defence and powerful kicking.

Credit for these skills must be given to the American elder, Erwin Moser at the Māori Agricultural College that Nepia attended.

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He coached him in the grid-iron style of punting and tackling. Nepia had disobeyed his father’s orders and preferred the Māori College to Te Aute when he and a travelling companion changed direction.

His coach advised him if he were suitable for the First XV his fees would be paid, does that make him New Zealand’s first professional rugby player?

George Nepia was born 1905, 1904 or 1908 according to various reports, in Wairoa, Hawkes Bay. He died aged eighty-one in 1986 and is remembered as an iconic player from both rugby codes and one of the great Māori players.

He was selected for the legendary Hawkes Bay team in 1922, then made his international debut on the Invincibles tour. The ship took six weeks to get to England and Nepia was the only non-smoker on tour.

The pride of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe was described by an Englishman Denzil Batchelor as “a fullback slinking from side to side like a black panther behind bars.”

Due to apartheid, Nepia was not selected for the South African tour in 1928, but he followed up with a tour to Australia and the British Lions at home.

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The depression affected Nepia badly in the 1930s, so he switched to rugby league, playing for the Streatham and Mitcham Rugby League Club in London, for a considerable sum of 500 pounds.

He missed his family back in New Zealand and returned there in 1937, playing league for Manukau, NZ Māori and clubs in the South Island as he was ostracised from playing rugby.

Rules changed after the Second World War and Nepia played rugby union for the Olympians club against his son George at the age of forty-five, the only time a father has played against his son in NZ first-class rugby.

He then became a referee upon his retirement from playing the game in the 1950s.

Nepia was inducted into the NZ Sports Hall of Fame and in 2004 was selected in “New Zealand’s Top 100 History Makers” television show, but he has never received a Queen’s Honour.

He has also been the subject of a one-person show and a book both titled “I, George Nepia”.

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Some tips from George Nepia: many ligament injuries are due to low-cut boots, the 2-3-2 scrum should have been retained and the secret to a long life is to keep your mind active and read a lot.

On the 1982 NZ Māori tour, Nepia was introduced to the 60,000-strong Welsh crowd and they all stood and clapped this legendary Māori All Black, showing the esteem in which he was held.

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I’ve just realised it is a hundred years since Nepia was a member of the Invincibles tour in 1924, so this has worked quite nicely into a tribute to the man and his storied chapter in NZ rugby history.

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