As debate was firing up over Pacific rugby talent being poached by affluent northern hemisphere clubs, rugby star Apirana Pewhairangi, Ngāti Porou, flew in the other direction, returning home after a five year stint in Ireland and England. The rugby league five-eighths wasted no time on arrival in New Zealand and soon successfully trialled for the Vodafone Warriors, the team he’d played for in 2015 – the year after he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Māori studies and te reo. Alongside his rugby career, Pewhairangi is now continuing his academic pursuits with a master’s in Māori studies by distance at Massey, with plans to do his thesis on his experiences as a
Māori player in professional sport. He also has a role with Massey’s Te Rau Tauawhi Māori student centre. His time living overseas has, he says, given him a fresh perspective on his homeland – and the value of whānau and tūrangawaewae – as well as on how he approaches the next phase of his life in rugby. At the time of writing, he was on a semi-professional contract and playing for the Warriors’ reserve team.
While he is glad to be back in the Pacific, it was family ties as well as rugby opportunities that inspired him to head to Ireland. His grandmother, born in Lucan, died when Pewhairangi was two years old but her nationality meant he qualified to play for Ireland. The first time was in the 2013 Rugby World Cup, when he played in two of Ireland’s tournament games. In 2015, he joined the rugby union side, Connacht. Meeting his extended family in Ireland was a great experience, especially as most of them are avid rugby fans, he says. The Irish people were “so kind and welcoming – I could really see some similarities between them and Kiwis”. After two seasons and having recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament injury incurred while playing in Castres, France, he swapped the charmed but slow pace of life in Galway, with its 200 pubs, for busy, crowded London. There, he played league for the London Broncos for two-and-a-half seasons. Pewhairangi says that having a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Māori studies, helped him during his time in Ireland and the United Kingdom with cultural encounters and strengthening his own sense of identity. “The knowledge I have gave me confidence, in knowing who I am and where I come from.”
It also helped him to understand and empathise with the challenges of the Irish people in revitalising their native language, which hasn’t yet developed to the level of te reo Māori in New Zealand, he says. A fluent speaker, te reo was his first and only language until he was 13.
Besides being a rugby player, Pewhairangi will continue to be involved as a coach and mentor, and in working to encourage young Māori athletes in the sport. One thing he will tell them is to make time to study – even if they want to pursue professional sport. “As younger players, you have a lot of free time – getting an education is so important to have that life balance. And it gives you something to build on for the future.”
Raised in Palmerston North, Pewhairangi attended Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Mana Tamariki immersion school. In 2009, at 17, he signed with the Newcastle Knights for three years, before signing to play in the National Rugby League for the Parramatta Eels in 2013 on a two-year contract. When he had the chance to be in Palmerston North, he coached and mentored young high school rugby league players. He also represented New Zealand in rugby league, for the Junior Kiwis in 2012 and the New Zealand Māori side in 2013.
He says his parents Tu and Irene Pewhairangi, both teachers, instilled in him the value of education. His sister Te Ataakura (Bachelor of Arts in Māori studies) and brother Te Aorere (Bachelor of Communication) also studied by distance at Massey, both graduating last year. Since then his brother has completed a master’s in media studies through the University of Waikato. Now, all three are bringing their knowledge and experiences back to Massey’s Auckland campus, in Albany, in a range of roles – Apirana is with Te Rau Tauawhi Māori student support, Te Aorere is a senior Māori advisor and Te Ataakura is a te reo lecturer in Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, the School of Māori Knowledge.