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> Maori kite flying    > Poi Toa
Traditional Māori sport and games

Ki-o-Rahi - a forerunner to rugby

Running with the Ki-o-Rahi ball

Ki-o-Rahi is a traditional pre-European Māori ball game. It is a fast running contact sport, played on a circular field, involving imaginative handling and swift inter passing of a "ki" (ball). Before the arrival of Europeans, Ki-o-Rahi was played by Māori throughout Aotearoa/New Zealand. Often different tribes would play different adaptations of the game.

A tribe which had especially strong and fit ball players among its members could sometimes be solicited for help by another tribe preparing for war. A messenger would present a "ki" or "poi" to the chief, which would represent an invitation to join the tribe in battle.

Ngakete Andrews running with the Ki-o-Rahi ball. Thanks to George Barrett for permission to reproduce this image.

Diverse ball ("ki") games have always played a major part in Māori culture, and ball games were often played between tribal clans if one tribe organized an entertainment.

The more common types of balls used were :

 The "poi" - a flax ball attached to a short string, used in dance and play.

 The "poi toa" - a flax ball attached to a long string, used originally as a warrior training poi. The poi toa would be flung several times in rapid succession, aimed at another standing tribe member a short distance away, in order to test flexibility, coordination, speed.

 The "ki" - a flax ball, used in passing and catching games.

Due to missionary influence, European colonisation and the New Zealand Wars, most traditional Māori "mahi-a-rongo" / "rehia" (pleasurable past-times) had all but disappeared by the 1870s.

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In 1870, Europeans introduced a "new" game to New Zealand. Where Ki-o-Rahi had been banned in schools, rugby, which took its inspiration from Ki-o-Rahi and then adapted as a European sport, was encouraged. Māori immediately recognised the cultural origins of Ki-o-Rahi in rugby, and the game become overwhelmingly popular.

The first New Zealand representative rugby team, composed in 1888 and selected on merit, was made up entirely of Māori players. Later, three Europeans and two foreigners joined the team, which left for an extensive tour of Britain. The team was called "The Natives", and used the Silver Fern (common New Zealand tree fern, of which the fronds have a silvery underside) as the emblem for their team.

During the first World War, Princess Te Puea encouraged Tainui Māori not to enlist. Princess Te Puea supported Kingitanga (the Māori king movement), and encouraged Māori to revive traditional games and activities. As a result of this a number of Waikato Māori began playing Ki-o-Rahi, thus reviving the sport.

Although Māori continued to play Ki-o-Rahi among themselves, it was not openly supported as a national game in New Zealand society until the 1970's, time of the Māori cultural renaissance. Until this time, only regular European games had been promoted - games which were played on an international scale, and therefore more attractive for sponsorship.

Ki-o-Rahi pendant

Pendants worn to represent the Ki-o-Rahi game are similar to this one. Thanks to George Barret for this image.

However, in order for Ki-o-Rahi to become widely accepted in contemporary New Zealand society the game was largely modified, as were many other traditional Māori games.
Capping ceremony

A university graduation ceremony. The graduate is holding a traditional "ki" (flax woven ball).

At the time of his "capping", It is usual for a graduate of Maori descent to wear or carry a prized possession – usually the "taonga" (prized possession) is a neck pendant, feather cloak or cultural artifact (such as a "ki").

Thanks to Harko Brown for permission to use this photo.

  Click here to see ki-o-rahi videos  
© The above texts are copyright. Please do not use without the author's express consent.
Credits and thanks to George Barrett and Harko Brown, both experts in pre-European Māori sports of their respective regions, for supplying me with information in this new field which I am currently researching. The source for Ki-o-Rahi is from George Barrett, who has kindly permitted me to adapt this information for reproduction on my website.
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Related Links
Princess Te Puea Herangi biography
The legend of Ki-o-Rahi (or how Ki-o-Rahi came into being)


 Please be aware that this website is a personal homepage. It would therefore be wise to cross check information which I have presented here. A list of many official New Zealand history sites may be found within my Links section.