From the far north to the deep south, New Zealanders turned out on Saturday (6.02.10) to celebrate the nation’s 170th birthday.
But while Waitangi, in New Zealand’s far north, hosted official national day ceremonies, Stewart Island, in the deep south, was marking the occasion in a quintessentially Kiwi fashion - on the rugby field.
Waitangi Day commemorates the day Māori tribal leaders and representatives of the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi - New Zealand’s founding document - on 6 February 1840.
So, for the locals on Stewart Island - off the southern tip of the South Island - Waitangi Day provides the perfect excuse for a Māori v Pakeha face-off on the rugby field.
As the only rugby game played on the island, the annual match has become a significant event since it first started in 1991.
While dignified ceremony is the order of the day elsewhere, the Stewart Island occasion is a family affair and more about getting together in a social context.
On the morning of the game, a Māori hangi - traditional feast of seafood, meat and vegetables - was laid on Butterfield Beach. The kai / food was slow-cooked in a pit dug in the ground and steamed over hot stones covered with earth, while the game was underway.
Post-match, all Stewart Islanders and any visitors - known locally as "loopies" - were invited to join the feasting and bonfire on the beach.
The island’s population is 400 and at least half were there on Saturday, along with visitors.
In island style, the rugby match is also an inclusive affair, open to all-comers from former representative rugby players to any willing foreign tourists who happen to be on the island - though knowing what to do with a rugby ball could be an advantage.
Conditions used to require players to have worked one day on the island, or to have lived there for six months, but the rules are looser now. This year, a Norwegian and a couple of German tourists joined the teams.
The only game in town takes place at Traill Park which sits just above Oban, the island’s port and main settlement.
Spectators lined the eastern side of the field while the traditional haka echoed from the bush on the western edge as the Māori team, led by John Pihi Neave, gave the pre-game challenge.
One year the Pakeha team offered muskets and blankets recalling colonial trading methods. However, according to Paul Sooalo, the game was not about settling past grievances.
"It's about friendship," Sooalo said. "The people here with Māori blood are staunch but if anything, we're a united bunch of half-castes."
For Saturday’s game, the faces of the Māori team had been tattooed with vivid marker but it was otherwise hard to distinguish who was playing for who.
The Māori team has won the most games, but this year the Pakeha team took the honours 32-30 and the trophy macrocarpa carving of a whale’s tail.
After the game, both teams retired to the pub to watch replays of the match which, according to the locals, was one of the best games in years.