'It caused a sensation': Hinewehi Mohi reflects on singing national anthem in Māori

It may be hard to believe in 2019, but singing the national anthem in Te Reo Māori at a rugby test match 20 years ago angered many New Zealanders.

Hinewehi Mohi made history with her 1999 rendition of the national anthem, stirring 75,000 fans in the stands at Twickenham and millions more at home.

"I felt immensely proud to be an ambassador for and represent New Zealand. And we won the game, it was neat," Mohi told The Project on Tuesday's episode. 

Hinewehi told the manager of the All Blacks that she'd be singing the anthem in Te Reo - but the message didn't quite make it through to the players. 

"There were a lot of people who felt left out of the equation because they didn't know the words. I guess it caused a bit of a sensation... not necessarily of a positive kind," she said.

Back home in New Zealand, a handful of callers on talkback radio had a lot to say about the performance.

"I absolutely was so disappointed that nobody could sing the national anthem," said one caller.

"There were a lot of calls from dyed-in-the-wool rugby supporters who took exception to our national anthem being sung in Māori," said sports broadcaster Brendan Telfer.

"Some people were convinced that pākehā civilisation as we knew it was about to implode because we didn't have the anthem sung in English.

"I think the best response I could come up with on-air was, do you want the haka in English as well?

"I seem to recall her going on the [Paul] Holmes show to defend what she'd done and I thought, how appalling is this? Why should this young woman, who's done such a magnificent job representing New Zealand at the World Cup, have to defend herself?"


Police constable and former All Black Glen Osborne was a fullback in that 1999 World Cup squad. 

"The first time we heard it in Te Reo, it was beautiful," Osborne told The Project.

"I don't understand why there was such a big fuss over the national anthem being sung in Māori. 

"For me, at the end of the day, it's a beautiful change and it's beautiful the way New Zealand has adopted it. Now, 90 percent of people know the words in Māori."

'God Defend New Zealand' was written in 1875, the Māori version appearing three years later. However, the lyrics are quite different. 

"The translation seems far simpler and very much [focuses on] coming together as a nation, the glory of the world and feeling protected and celebratory," says Mohi.

In Te Reo, there is no mention of a "triple star" - whatever that is.

"Triple star? No. We've got four stars for the Southern Cross... okay, I don't know," Mohi laughed.

The Te Reo rendition also glosses over the shafts of strife and war.

"Maybe we need an English translation of the English version," Mohi joked.

"Personally, I would prefer to see it all in Māori because it's more powerful, more emotional and a more beautiful experience," said Telfer.

"Some people took a while to get their heads around it but for the most part, most New Zealanders have really embraced it and love it and perform it with such pride. Now our kids know no different," said Mohi.

The 20th anniversary of the occasion is being marked with the release of a new album, Waiata Anthems. It features Kiwi musicians singing Te Reo versions of their hit songs to honour Hinewehi's achievement.

The Project will be playing songs from the album throughout Te Wiki o te Reo Māori.