As sought-after as a finals ticket, poi have caught Rugby World Cup fans in a whirl. Suzanne McFadden looks at how a small round ball became a highlight of the tournament, uniting ages, cultures and communities.

There are collection boxes at gates around Eden Park where fans can leave their poi as they exit Rugby World Cup games. Except the boxes are always empty.

“I’ve seen two poi left on the ground during the whole tournament and we’ve had over 100,000 people through the gates,” says Craig Harvey, who’s helped bring the poi campaign to life at RWC2021.

The simple poi – made from fabric, wool and the upcycled fluff from pillows and duvets – appear to be luminescent, lighting up the tournament stands as they’re twirled by thousands of fans. The Wā Poi (It’s Poi Time) movement has played a significant role in this rugby championship, backing wāhine toa on the field and uniting fans from all nations and walks of life.

Sparked by an idea from Dame Hinewehi Mohi – who made history at a Rugby World Cup 23 years earlier – and created by a 16-year-old entrepreneur and a former Olympic rower at opposite ends of the country, the poi phenomenon is barely a month old. But it’s already spun its way into other sporting events around the globe.

Last weekend, poi were spotted at the Fast5 Netball World Series in Christchurch, and the Rugby League World Cup in England. It could be the start of a uniquely Kiwi sporting ritual.

By the end of play at Saturday’s final between the Black Ferns and England’s Red Roses, around 34,000 free poi will have left in the hands of fans during this Rugby World Cup.  

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The Rugby World Cup crowds have latched on to Wā Poi

There’s something less confronting about poi than other cheering paraphernalia dished out at sports. Flags can be pointy weapons (accidentally or intentionally), while netball’s thundersticks are annoyingly loud. Don’t even bring up cowbells…

And there’s something calming about rhythmically spinning a poi during the intensity of a rugby battle, alongside 7999 others.  

The Black Ferns reiterated after Saturday’s suspenseful 25-24 semifinal victory over France the important role the crowds have played in their no-loss performance so far.

To make sure everything is tika – culturally correct – tournament organisers have sought Māori cultural guidance, and understand the poi are regarded as taonga (treasures).

“We were really concerned about protecting these taonga, and one of the key things we had to do was keep them off the ground,” Harvey, the commercial and marketing communications manager for RWC2021, says.

“We created the collection containers so people could donate the poi back and we could pass them on to local kura and kohanga reo after the tournament. After opening match day, we had given out 12,000 poi, and the team said they saw about a dozen go into the containers – and the longest they lasted in there was three seconds.

“People would stalk those who looked like they’d hand them back, and grab them out of the container.”

Volunteers have walked around the stands carrying boxes of poi, and they’re quickly snatched up.

“If our volunteer team carry a box through the crowd, even if it’s not poi, people are asking if there’s poi inside the box,” Harvey says. “I almost have to put security on my team.”

But fans, especially kids, have been able to create their own during the matches – at poi-making workshops led by wāhine from Poi Yeah at Eden Park and FlaxMaiden at the Northland Events Centre.

Max and Poppy with their bespoke poi made on the opening day of the Rugby World Cup at Eden Park. Photos: Sarah Cowley-Ross.

Former Black Fern, now the New Zealand Rugby Board’s deputy chair Farah Palmer, who performed with poi in kapa haka as a teenager, says she’s found Wā Poi to be a special experience at this Rugby World Cup.

“Witnessing thousands of New Zealanders embracing an indigenous way to express joy, unstoppable energy and kotahitanga [unity] for the Black Ferns, and wāhine toa in rugby generally, has been such mana-enhancing kaupapa to be part of,” she says.

It all began with celebrated musician Dame Hinewehi Mohi, who was invited to sing at the opening ceremony of this Rugby World Cup 2021, now a month ago.

Mohi is no stranger to making history – having decided to sing the national anthem in te reo Māori for the first time at Twickenham during the 1999 Rugby World Cup. A decision that whipped up controversy, but led to God Defend New Zealand now being sung in both Māori and England at sports events.

Over two decades later, she sang the anthem unaccompanied at the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony at Eden Park, before the Black Ferns took on Australia.

“She’s just the most wonderful human, with so many ideas, and so giving of her time,” Harvey says. “At one of our meetings [before the opening ceremony] she said ‘Imagine if instead of flags in the crowd, we were twirling poi?’ And what that would mean with the eyes of the world on us.

“We never let go of that beautiful idea and now we have the good fortune to stand back and watch Kiwis all over the place twirling poi – uniting people in a special and unique way.”

RWC2021 volunteers chip in to help make poi. Photo: supplied.

Harvey was involved with the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand, and the campaign to get Kiwis in the stands singing Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi. “But it fell a bit flat in the stands, because Kiwis don’t like to be told what to do, bless us,” he says.

“Poi is something that physically doesn’t require too much. If you can twist your wrist just a little bit, you can do it. And it’s already a part of a lot of people’s understanding of being Kiwi.

“It’s like women’s sport to a certain extent. We are just shining a light on something that’s always been there, we’re just giving it a nudge at the right time. And special things can happen.”

The RWC2021 organising team got in touch with teenager Georgia Latu in Ōtepoti, Dunedin, who is founder and CEO of Pōtiki Poi.

Last month, Latu (Kāi Tahu, Ngāpuhi) was named the Young Māori Business Leader of 2022, for the venture she started on her mum Anna’s Facebook page three years ago, when she was just 12. Now she runs the world’s largest poi manufacturing business – employing 20 people.

To meet this Rugby World Cup order – the largest procurement of poi ever made – Latu had to call on whānau, friends and community to help make around 25,000. They’re still making them for Saturday’s final match day.

“We sent a tono [request] out to our hapori – to our community – to come in and help Pōtiki Poi achieve this crazy order. And through that we’ve actually been able to offer first-time employment to a lot of rangatahi in Ōtepoti, which is also amazing,” Latu told RNZ.

RWC2021 marketing specialist Anna Nielsen preparing poi packs for schools. Photo: supplied. 

Also helping fill the order, from the tournament HQ, is marketing specialist Anna Nielsen. Back in 2012, Nielsen (nee Reymer) finished fifth with Fiona Paterson in rowing’s double scull at the London Olympics.

Harvey says Nielsen’s competitive streak has come out for the benefit of rugby fans at this tournament.

“If you tell Anna that something can’t be done, then you can guarantee it’s probably going to happen. She’s been buying the materials at Spotlight and making poi after work with volunteers, and even at home,” he says.

“We’ve had kids at primary schools involved, and at girls rugby festivals where players have been making poi in between matches.  And still we can’t make enough – which is a wonderful problem to have. Just like we can’t get enough seats for Saturday night.”

Last night, Eden Park put up for sale a ‘limited number’ of extra seats in the stadium and they sold out in minutes; the crowd is expected to top 40,000 and set a new world record for a women’s rugby match. 

While there will be 5000 poi handed out to the first fans who arrive at the stadium on Saturday (France play Canada for bronze at 4.30pm), Harvey hopes people who’ve already been to RWC matches will bring their own poi to the game.

Many of the Black Ferns have embraced Wā Poi – top try-scorer Portia Woodman seen stepping off the bus in Whangārei twirling two poi in one hand.

Harvey has two favourite poi memories from this tournament.

Octogenarian Russell of Waipu with his poi at the Black Ferns game in Whangārei. Photo: supplied. 

The first is seeing a man in his 80s, named Russell, giving poi a go at one of the Northland triple-headers.

“We said we always wanted to see a South Canterbury farmer twirling a poi,” Harvey says, but Russell – who lives across the road from the Waipu Rugby Club – was just as good.

“Then just before the tournament kicked off, I was walking from the train to the office, twirling my poi, and a guy in his wheelchair who lives on the streets called out and said: ‘Hey bro, did you know Māori warriors used to swing poi to get their wrists strong, ready for battle?’ 

“And I got to have a conversation with him… If I hadn’t been holding a poi, we probably would never have connected. So I gave him my poi, and later in the day I saw him again and asked if he still had it. He said ‘No, I’ve gifted it to my niece’.

“The sense of connection and of something special being passed on between ages, cultures and communities, was beautifully encapsulated in that moment.”

One of many moments where poi have brought people together in the past five weeks. And from which, Harvey hopes, poi will become a new part of New Zealand’s sporting landscaping. 

* Pātēa Māori Club will perform Poi E at halftime of the bronze play-off between Canada and France, which kicks off at 4.30pm. BENEE will perform at fulltime, and again at halftime in the England-NZ final, starting 7.30pm. Both games will be live on Spark Sport and Three.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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