Te Ariki Te Puni had a big presence as head prefect of Palmerston North Boys’ High School in 2016.
A vital member of the First XV, he won the prestigious Korimako award at the National Manu Korero speech competition for his address, ‘Stand up for race unity – don't be a bystander.’
Additionally he was an integral part of a spine-tingling haka performed by 1500 Palmerston North Boys' High School students at Pa Dawson's tangihanga that went viral around the world.
Dawson, a long-standing teacher at the college, was an uncle of Te Puni who was skyped at midnight by the BBC wearing “his blazer and a pair of shorts” to discuss the meaning and impact of the haka.
On Monday, Te Puni was front and centre of another stirring haka. The hooker and loose forward led the New Zealand Maori Under-18 into battle against the New Zealand Barbarians.
The Under-18 Maori are in their second year of existence and consist of 25 leading Maori players not included in the New Zealand Schools or Barbarians outfits.
The Maori narrowly lost to the Barbarians 24-28 in Palmerston North, but justified their existence with a competitive showing. The side’s especially composed haka performed with spectacular gusto and accompanied by taiaha, unusual in a rugby context, was a graphic illustration of their unique culture.
“The haka is split into two parts. The first part was composed by our cultural advisor Tiki Edwards and reflects what this group is about and where we come from. The second part is about coming together,” Te Puni explains.
E Tū Toa is a nationwide programme which uses rugby as a vehicle for young Māori to connect with their culture and learn wider life skills.
Billy Priestley from Gisborne Boys’ High School and Coel Kerr from Paeroa College believe the program, aligned with the Under-18 fixtures, has been “beneficial” and “eye-opening.”
“I don’t speak fluent Maori, but that doesn’t make my Maori background any less important,” Kerr stated.
“The most important thing I have learned is to be yourself and don’t change that for anyone,” Priestley asserted.
Kerr, a centre or wing, is proof of the programs benefit. Paeroa College has a declining roll of 240 students, but this year the First XV enjoyed a ground breaking season.
“I have been in the Paeroa First XV since Year 9. There are six teams in the local competition and we play a double round robin. We were unbeaten and won the competition for the first time in a decade. We also played in the Chiefs trophy for the first time so it was a big year.” Kerr reflects.
Priestley is one of six siblings from a farming background in Tolaga Bay. He lives with his grandparents in central Gisborne. The hooker and flanker has been a regular in the Poverty Bay reps. Gisborne Boys’ had a tough season finishing last in Super 8, but Priestley embraced the pressure of being with a historically strong program.
“It’s a privilege to be involved in something like that. It’s hard sometimes, but we are proud of it and work hard to defend the legacy of the jersey. We have only six leaving this year so I think we will be a lot stronger in 2018.” Priestley observes.
Te Puni won the John Drake Memorial Scholarship and studies law and commerce at Auckland University while also playing for Varsity Colts.
On Friday at Jerry Collins Stadium in Porirua the Maori tackle Tonga Schools who have been impressive on their New Zealand tour defeating the Wellington Under-18’s and extending the Barbarians. Te Puni expects a torrid tussle.
“Tonga are very physical. Without giving too much away we will try and stretch them. We have a lot of good runners in this team so hopefully we can tire them out.”
Te Puni is from the Ngati Raukawa, Rangitane o Manawatu and Ngati Porou tribes. Priestley is affiliated with Ngati Porou and Te Aitanga a Hauiti and Kerr is from a Ngati Ranginui heritage.