Joe's journey to professional rugby and Maori All Black status has not exactly been the smoothest of roads or easiest of journeys and as a result, provides fantastic learnings for the classroom and beyond, in terms what it takes to succeed in terms of one's ambitions. In Joe's case, his ambition was straightforward and lofty- international rugby.
Joe made his first class right début for the North Harbour Province in 2009 at the age of 24. It seemed only a matter of time that once established at the NPC level, he would be playing international rugby. Yet after a mere two games in 2009, it appeared to many and to indeed Joe himself that these games could simultaneously and somewhat uniquely, be both the start and end to a dramatically brief first class career. After 2010, Joe continued to play high-level club rugby for one of New Zealand most historic and successful rugby clubs Ponsonby of Auckland. Yet from 2010-2012, there were no further call-ups to NPC representation, International representation not surprisingly therefore was not on the radar. To be honest, it was not even on the same planet. As Joe recalled, many around him suggested that having "cracked" first-class rugby, (a significant achievement in its own right) that Joe should give up his much larger global ambition. It would have not been a surprise to anyone if Joe had quit there and then. Most people probably would have. The sporting landscape in New Zealand and indeed world-wide is littered with many who have come, conquered and just as promptly, departed. On a an even greater level, the same landscapes are over-populated with those who are best described as "would-haves, should-haves, could-haves."
Having perceived all roads to his rugby ambitions blocked in Auckland and North Harbour yet with good employment in Auckland, Joe made the significant call to move to the the Bay of Plenty for "one last crack."
With the year now being 2013 and Joe now aged 27, it was literally "last-chance saloon" for his rugby aspirations. Little by little, Joe started picking up precious representative game time for the Bay of Plenty NPC team and through such exposure, came to the attention of the New Zealand Maori All Blacks selectors. In a true cinderella story, Joe at last reached his ambition of playing international rugby. In the late winter of 2013, Joe Wirihana Royal of Te Arawa and Ngati Whatua I Orakei played for the Maori All Blacks against the United States of America in Philadelphia. Coming on as a substitute, Joe had done it, he had achieved his ambition of playing international rugby and representing both his culture and his Maori heritage. Yet within 18 months, Joe again faced adversity in his international career being overlooked for a three match external tour. However this time he was not to be denied: a unfortunate injury to a team-mate once again opened this door to international duty.
Fast-forward back to 2016 and Joe is firmly established as not only a NPC professional but also as a Maori All Black, respected such that he frequently leads the team's haka (Maori war dance) pre-match and is often engaged in various media duties on behalf of the team. Yet he remains defiant, he wants more international game-time. After now 30 games for the Bay of Plenty, 2 for North Harbour and a triumphant 5 for the Maori All Blacks, this story has not yet reached its final chapter. let alone its conclusion. What could have been the shortest of stories is now turning into something quite novel.
But many may be thinking. Yes, Joe's story is a triumph over set-backs, time and indeed adversity, but how on earth can such an story have any relevance to classroom application, let alone learning in an educational context?
- Joe could've quit when he initially failed to add to his two NPC games with North Harbour. But if he had, such an action would have cemented the permanency of not reaching his international ambition. By continuing to fight on, Joe at least kept the option open of maybe, just maybe reachin his goal.
- Joe was prepared to sacrifice to reach his goal. He had to move to another city, change jobs and start all over again in a new region and in a new team with no guarantee of success or even opportunity. However by doing so, if he didn't "crack it" in the end, he wouldn't die wondering "what if?" or "could I have?"
- Joe would not have played international rugby if he had listened to people around him in 2009 suggesting that his time was up. Four years between representative rugby meant Joe had a lot of time to think, "is all this worth it particularly if I don't make it?" Rather than quit as most people would expect and most likely do, Joe made it clear to me that such external lack of faith only added to his motivation to succeed and succeed big. Ultimately however, it would Joe and Joe alone who would determine success or otherwise.
- Even when Joe reached international status, he realised he had to keep improving, keep getting better or he would once again be a temporary presence. Joe then focused not just on making the playing squad but being in the run-on side. Joe also developed further leadership, culminating in him playing a key role in the cultural leadership of the Maori All Blacks, whether through leading the haka on-field or ensuring off-field protocols and expectations were adhered to.
In retrospect, Joe's story and the learning we can gleam from it is a far more interesting tale of motivation and inspiration than someone who faced none of the above barriers or alternatively just withdrew.. Robert Frost famously wrote in his poem The Road not Taken:
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In the case of Joe Wirihana Royal, and more poignantly in a time when many players call time on their careers in their mid-twenties if representative honours are not forthcoming, we are reminded that in the classroom and in life, we have only truly lost when we absolutely quit. If we in the classroom refuse to let our learners quit, but try alternative roads to learning, if we use their culture and personal ambition as motivation and fuel for their fires, at the very least, we give our students a chance, no matter how small and in doing so, we give them a future, their future. If we promote students to quit their learning, we are at the same validating the cancellation of their aspirations, their dreams and their chance. Joe Royal never quit on his international rugby aspirations and three years on, he still hasn't. So let's too not quit on our students' aspirations. It may take them four years as it did Joe, it may take some more, it may take some less but ultimately we should and must give our students the same chance to reach, reach for their stars or in in Joe's case, a black jersey.
In closing, Joe's triumph is best echoed by the immortal words of Sir Winston Churchill, Great Britain's victorious war-time Prime Minister:
Never, never, never give up.
Pretty good advice for us all, I reckon. After all, it worked for Winston Churchill and it certainly did for Joe.