Crusaders loose forward Cullen Grace is relishing the prospect of representing the Maori All Blacks in their upcoming matches against Ireland.
The Maori All Blacks will host Andy Farrell’s touring side in two midweek encounters in Hamilton on Wednesday, June 29 and Wellington on Tuesday, July 12.
Grace, who made his Test debut for New Zealand against Australia in Brisbane in 2020, was a late addition to Maori All Blacks head coach Clayton McMillan’s squad along with Sam Nock (scrum-half) and Max Hicks (second-row).
Unlucky to miss out on All Blacks call-up
Many Crusaders supporters feel Grace was unlucky not be called up to Ian Foster’s All Blacks squad after he played a leading role in helping the Christchurch-based outfit lift the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific title.
It is Grace’s first call up to the New Zealand indigenous team and although he always knew about his Maori heritage, which comes through his father, he didn’t grow up knowing too much of the Maori culture. He was encouraged to embrace it by Crusaders assistant coach Tamati Ellison, who represented the Maori All Blacks as well as New Zealand in the international arena.
“I had a yarn to my old man as well. He was pretty excited for me as well,” Grace told Stuff.
“I’ve got a lot to learn about my Maori side. I can’t wait to explore it. There isn’t a better team to do that.
“I know how proud the Māori jersey is.”
McMillan admitted that they were unsure about Grace’s Maori heritage before they selected him but once his eligibility was confirmed it was a no-brainer to pick him.
“We’re robust in how we go about ensuring that everybody who plays in the team has gone through an eligibility process,” he said.
All Maori All Blacks players’ genealogy must be confirmed before they can represent the team.
“We found out, fairly late, that Cullen was eligible,” explained McMillan. “We’ve been through that process and found that he’s as Māori as I am.
“He’s played great rugby all year, is a recent All Black, and this is a vehicle we hope will help promote not only Cullen, but every other member of our team, to higher honours.”
McMillan, who has coached the Maori All Blacks since 2017, believes Grace’s story was one of the best things about the team as it allows him to grow and better understand his heritage.
“I’ve seen people walk through the door in their first year, nervous as hell about their vulnerability within this space, and now they walk in here like they own the place,” he added.
“Coming here is often the catalyst for greater learning about who they are, where they come from, and then be in a position to share their experience and put other people who come into the squad at ease.”