TJ Perenara has spoken of his gratitude at being included in the Māori All Blacks to face Ireland and revealed the message he received from the All Blacks when told he wouldn’t be selected.
Perenara, the 30-year-old halfback who had been in the All Blacks since 2014 and has played 77 Tests, was overlooked for the series along with fellow No.9 Brad Weber, who was also an All Black as recently as last year.
The selectors have preferred Aaron Smith, Folau Fakatava and Finlay Christie.
In addressing the media for the first time since his very public disappointment, Perenara took a philosophical attitude to his setback. He said it didn’t define him, and that his first opportunity with the New Zealand Māori, a side he has wanted to represent for years, was not to be taken lightly.
"It’s a huge moment for me – not only in my career but my life - to represent a big part of my whānau on this stage is something I’ve always wanted to do," Perenara said. "To be in his environment is a huge honour and privilege."
Asked about is non-selection for the All Blacks, he replied: “It’s a part of the journey, I suppose."
"It’s definitely not the hardest thing I’ve been through, not even this year. There are a lot of things in life that get thrown at you. How you respond to that is the point. For me, the last couple of weeks have been just another step in my journey.
“I don’t really have an end goal. Making a team and winning X championships… my goal when I wake up is to be a better athlete for my team, be a better player, be a better person every single day. If I fall in love with that journey and get better every day… the end goal I think sells what I’m trying to do short.”
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster had the job of breaking the news to Perenara, and the Hurricanes stalwart said the message was general rather than specific.
“There was no clear ‘this, that, you’re doing this well, you’re doing this poorly’ or whatever,” he said. “It was ‘continue to play well, all the nines are playing well, and this is the direction we’ve chosen to go in.'
"It’s awesome for the boys who made the All Blacks. Good on them, they played some awesome footy and gave themselves the opportunity to be a part of that conversation too."
Given his mana within the team and life experience, along with the departures of previous skipper Ash Dixon and Whetukamokamo Douglas, Otere Black and Sean Wainui (who died last year), it’s possible Perenara could captain the Māori for the first game against Ireland next Wednesday in Hamilton. The second match is the following Tuesday in Wellington.
“If given an opportunity to lead this environment it would be a massive honour for me,” he said. “It would be something I’d need some help with. I’d look to the kaumātua… to get help with it. Being here isn’t just about footy for me.”
Head coach Clayton McMillan confirmed he hadn’t yet selected a captain, and that he had spoken to both Perenara and Weber before picking them in his side.
“They were naturally disappointed,” McMillan said of pair’s All Black setbacks. “I took the time to contact them individually to see what sort of head space they were in and to explore whether they wanted to be part of this team and for them it was a no brainer.
"It’s a proud moment for them to pull on the Māori jersey. Brad has done it before. TJ has desperately wanted to do it but has been in the All Blacks."
Perenara said his earliest memory of the Māori All Blacks was in growing up with a close friend whose grandfather had represented the side.
“To be able to represent not only my whānau but also his gives me goosebumps now,” he said.