An emotional Joe Webber has opened up on some of the driving factors behind his decision to step away from the All Blacks Sevens to be part of a total immersion Māori language programme, saying he wishes late former teammate Sean Wainui could be doing it with him.
The All Blacks Sevens announced last week Webber had been granted a release from the final four tournaments of this year's circuit to be a part of Te Tohu Paetahi, a year-long total immersion Māori language programme through the University of Waikato, with the team's full support.
Webber told Te Karere this afternoon having his team's backing - and in particular the support of coach Clark Laidlaw - meant a lot to him.
"I had to beg him," Webber joked of his approach to Laidlaw.
"He's cool, ol' Clarkey - he's real supportive. He just loves the Māori culture... he was real supportive of it. I just had to put together a good proposal."
Helping said proposal was the timing of Webber's break with 2023 being an "off year" for the All Blacks Sevens - meaning there are no major tournaments such as the Olympics, Commonwealth Games or World Cups.
"Now I'm only missing four tournaments," he said.
"My contract had to be cut down because I'm missing those four tournaments but it's all worth it."
Webber added he can still train with the All Blacks Sevens when time allows outside of his studies but he won't re-join the side officially until he completes the programme later this year.
One of the biggest reasons Webber wanted to learn Te Reo Māori was for his three children who are 10, 7 and 5.
"They're all in the Rumaki Unit at Bethlehem Primary and my partner is a kaiako [teacher] at Te Wharekura o Mauao so I just felt if not now, then I was going to be left behind," he said.
"I just think it's really important for us to be speaking Māori at home while they're still young."
That whānau factor also extends to older generations for Webber, who held back tears as he spoke of his late koro [grandad] who got him into rugby.
"He used to take me every Saturday and he used to say, 'oh, you're gonna be an All Black, boy,' and always did a lot for me so I just wanted to make him proud."
Webber said his koro had three goals for his grandson.
"He wanted me to be an All Black - I didn't make the All Blacks but I think he'll be happy with Māori All Blacks and All Blacks Sevens.
"And I remember him always saying our papa kāinga [homeland] was never to be sold... and the third thing was he always wanted me to learn my reo."
With Webber and his family moving back to Maketu two years ago, his first steps to learning te reo made him think of his koro.
"I think he'd be proud."
'I made a promise to him'
Another person he hopes to make proud with his reo journey is former Bay of Plenty and Māori All Blacks teammate Sean Wainui.
The rugby community was rocked in October 2021 when Wainui died, triggering emotional tributes from family, teammates and opposition, who grieved the 25-year-old's sudden death.
Webber said he and Wainui had often discussed learning the language together and believes it could've been just as special a path for the former Chief of Ngā Ariki Kaipūtahi and Ngāi Tūhoe heritage.
"That's why I made a promise to myself and to him," Webber said.
"I made a promise to him that I would do this for us as well."
In keeping that promise, Webber hopes to motivate other Māori rugby players to reconnect to their culture as well.
"Hopefully I can be an inspiration to rangatahi [the younger generation] and my other brothers to get on the same journey and learn the reo," he said.
"I'm just proud to be Māori."