A soaked and drenched Māori All Blacks team have assembled in Rotorua to begin preparations for their two-match series against Fiji beginning next week. However, it hasn't been smooth sailing, with Tāwhirimātea doing his best to test the team.
Some of the 26-strong squad missed the pōwhiri at Ohinemutu on Thursday because of cancelled flights in and out of Rotorua. Highlanders midfield back Teihorangi Walden arrived in Auckland to discover the connecting flight to Rotorua was cancelled, "So we jumped on the bus and made our way to Rotorua," he says.
Walden says some of the other players weren't so lucky.
"The boys are on the waka still trying to paddle here. Nah, there's a few boys who still haven't made it, they'll get here in due time and join the boys here so we can sort of get close as a team over the next few days."
Despite the setback, the players are excited to be back in camp and to have the opportunity to embrace their Māori culture once again.
Maniapoto lock Tom Franklin says, "It's what this team's all about. It brings you back to your roots, and it brings you back to your culture and your ancestry and your heritage, and everything that Māori rugby is about. And for some people, this is the only opportunity they get to really connect and embrace with the Māori culture."
Franklin is looking forward to the two matches against Fiji, particularly the return match in Rotorua in two weeks' time. The Opotiki born and raised 28-year-old last played for the Māori side on home soil in 2017 in their 32-10 loss in Rotorua.
"The result didn't go our way, but that opportunity was awesome and we had a huge crowd there. And just the mana, the whole feel of it was awesome and to be able to do that again. Hopefully, the results will be better this time, but playing in Rotorua is pretty special," he says.
It's a rare occasion for the Māori team to come together so soon after facing each other all year in super rugby. However, Franklin says it's a special honour no matter when they get together.
"Playing for the Māoris at any time, you get excited and it's a special occasion. To be able to jump straight out of super rugby and into this, without having to do the ITM Cup pre-season, is an extra bonus."
Walden believes having players fresh from super rugby could help the Māori side, as they look to carry their early season form into the home and away series against the world number 9 ranked Flying Fijians, who are preparing themselves for the world cup.
The Māori team have their first training run Friday in Rotorua, with the hopes that the rain will have eased and allowed the full complement of players to arrive in the Bay of Plenty.