We explain the role of 'kaea' for the All Blacks

You can almost set your watch to the discourse that the All Black haka creates every year. Given we’re on the eve of the Rugby World Cup, expect it to arrive as soon as the team touches down in France for their campaign.

Psychological advantage, threatening gestures, and so on. It’s baffling as to why it’s even an issue, given the people that bring it up follow a sport that clings onto its traditions (almost certainly to a fault), and want to be rid of literally the oldest pre-match ritual that exists.

Read more: All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad

While that’s about as tired as it is pointless –because the haka isn’t going anywhere – at least it gives an opportunity for some to learn a bit more about it. The All Black haka is often referred to as a ‘war dance’, which while technically correct, isn’t really what it is. It’s a challenge and sign of respect, as well as an extremely important shop window into Māoridom.

The honour of being player who leads the haka

It’s worth remembering that in New Zealand culture, it would be far more disrespectful if someone didn’t perform a haka during a formal occasion, be it a rugby game, graduation or wedding reception.

So, we know the player who leads the haka has a pretty important job. They are the kaea: literally ‘leader’, of whom the haka is their sole responsibility. The kaea is in charge of haka practice throughout the season, that new players know what they are doing, who stands where in the formation and, most importantly, which one of the two All Black haka are performed before each game.

That’s based on what’s managed to have been squeezed out of the All Blacks over the years, who are as notoriously secretive about the haka’s inner workings as they are about their lineout calls. What we do know is that Aaron Smith is the current kaea and, barring injury, will remain that way for the World Cup.

It has been tradition for whoever the most senior Māori player in the side to be kaea, something that pulls through to today given Smith fits that bill. Māori half-backs in particular have a long history in the spot, with TJ Perenara, Piri Weepu carrying on the amateur era role of the great Sid Going.

But while it seems like an obvious cultural connection, being from a different heritage doesn’t rule you out: Tana Umaga was kaea while he was captain, while Richie McCaw and Kieran Read did so during their illustrious careers too.

What is he holding in the haka?

Aaron Smith was holding a carved wooden paddle in his hands during the opening haka of the Rugby World Cup against France. Smith said: “I was carrying a hoe (pronounced haw-eh), like a waka paddle.

“It was something special for our group. It aligns a little bit around our time in France … but I don’t want to give too much away about it.

“World Cups are different and we wanted to add something unique to this group for this moment in time. It just felt like it was the right time, and it was very special to carry that hoe and represent our people back home.”

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