SPORTS

Canada faces stiff rugby test in Toronto in the form of the Maori All Blacks

10/30/2013 05:01 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - It is perhaps like no other team in the world.

The ties that bind the Maori All Blacks are blood, culture and heritage as well as rugby excellence.

It makes for one very motivated group of men, which explains how an invitational side has beaten the likes of Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, France, Ireland, Samoa, Scotland, Tonga, and the British & Irish Lions in the past.

"It is a really special team," captain Tim Bateman told a news conference Wednesday. "I can't think of another team that I've played for that we all have something in common that we are really proud of, and that is being Maori.

"There's a huge support base in New Zealand around this side. It's been around for a long time. ... I'm just one of a squad of players that is really proud to bring Maori culture to this side of the world."

The touring New Zealand side, which features five All Blacks, takes on Canada on Sunday before what is expected to be a sellout crowd of 21,000 at BMO Field.

The Maori arrive on the back of a gruelling domestic club schedule and a round-the-world flight to get here. They will have just a few training sessions to prepare for 14th-ranked Canada and the No. 18 U.S. Eagles, whom they face Nov. 9 in Philadelphia.

"The hardest thing probably is just mentally, getting yourself up week in and week out," Bateman, whose father is part Maori, said of the modern pro rugby schedule.

"For a side like the Maori team, I don't think that will be much of an issue. The haka pre-game, that's a pretty special moment. That generally gets the boys pretty fizzing."

The Maori are not to be confused with the All Blacks, New Zealand's national team, although they have added All Blacks to their own name.

Changing the name from New Zealand Maori to Maori All Blacks is all about branding.

A news conference Wednesday featured two backdrops displaying sponsors, one for Canada and one for back home.

While the Maori play in North America, the world No. 1 All Blacks are also on the move in November with games against Japan, France, England and Ireland.

New Zealand rugby is also changing the way it uses the Maori. All Black selectors and New Zealand rugby high performance staff had a hand in choosing the touring squad.

Some players were left out because of concern they had played too much rugby. Others were added because All Blacks selectors wanted to see them in action.

"We've certainly gone in a more high-performance direction," said Maori coach Colin Cooper, a former Maori player himself. "But the cultural side that Tim's talked about is very very important for this team.

"The challenge is coming here on a short turnaround to take on Canada in their backyard. What will help us probably is that we're Maori and (that) will galvanize us — team unity will be brought together by our culture.

"More so than content of game planning, for instance. They both play their parts."

The Maori have been practising plays on the pitch — and their haka, a traditional Maori dance, delivered as a challenge to the opposition.

As captain, Bateman will be at the front of the Maori while All Blacks scrum half Piri Weepu acts as conductor.

The Maori have their own haka, distinct from those of the All Blacks.

Called Timatanga, it was written especially for the team by elders.

"It tells the Maori story of the creation ... from the void, the nothingness, the darkness to what we have today," according to the All Blacks web site. "It also tells of a gathering of young warriors, young chiefs, young rugby players who are making a statement and setting aims, objectives and strategies to achieve matauranga (knowledge), whanaunatanga (unity) and taumatatanga (excellence)."

A partial English translation reads: "If you aim for the mountains, you will hit the plains. If you aim for the sky, you will hit the mountain peaks. climb up, thrive to the pathway of knowledge to achieve excellence spiritually, mentally, physically."

Said Bateman: "It's got a huge amount of tradition to it."

It is the stuff of poetry. But delivered by 20-plus elite athletes, there is a definite sense of menace.

For Bateman, it's been a whirlwind week.

He played for the Wellington in a 29-13 ITM Cup final loss to Canterbury on Saturday night before joining the Maori the next day and flying out Sunday night. They arrived at 2 a.m. Monday Toronto time.

The 26-year-old back doesn't expect to get any time off until after the Maori tour. He's anticipating a break of about four weeks and says he won't get any more time off until the same time next year.

The Maori defeated Canada 32-19 last November in England.

"They put out a really awesome performance," said Bateman. "We were lucky to get away with the win."

Because Sunday's game falls outside the IRB's November international window, Canada will be missing more than a half-dozen of its top players Sunday.

Still the Maori probably represent one of the team's toughest tests because as a Tier 2 team, the Canadian men no longer get a chance to compete against top sides outside of World Cup play.

NOTES — Canadian coach Kieran Crowley played with Maori coach Colin Cooper and coached with him at Taranaki in New Zealand.

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