A significant performance before every time the All Blacks play, we explain what the haka actually is in this piece.
What Is The Haka?
New Zealand are undoubtedly the favourites to secure glory at the 2019 Rugby World Cup because they have the talent, the know-how, the experience and what also gets overlooked; the haka. It is a word we all know and recognise but not many actually know the history of the dance. So let’s take a look.
In 2019, the rhetoric is that the haka and the All Blacks are inseparably intertwined.
Indeed, there are those of us who are only old enough to know the haka as it is today – all advancing Frenchmen, Piri’s bulging eyes and jumping Jonah.
Dig a little deeper (the right YouTube search’ll do) and it’s clear it wasn’t always like this; a 1973 rendition in Cardiff is no more than a jig and a jump, to the point that there’s a spoof version with said footage accompanied by Mud’s jaunty number “Tiger Feet”.
So to the next video and, just as rugby and the haka readied the divorce papers in the 80s, a new lease of life arrives with a nose to nose confrontation. The rest is history – first as it’s used home and away, then through the 1995 World Cup and the advent of professionalism, we arrive at today’s version which, to emphasise its standing and to illustrate its transformation, has seen the specially composed and altogether more provocative Kapa O Pango supplement the classic All Black haka, Ka Mate.
So, what’s the story behind this transformation?
While it wasn’t used at home until 1987, the haka has been performed abroad by the All Blacks since the “New Zealand Natives” – all but four were Maori – toured Britain in 1888 and performed “Ake Ake Kia Kaha” (“forever forever stay strong”). Ka Mate was first used in 1905 and various others have appeared over the years, among them “Tena koe, Kangaroo” (wait for it – “How are you, Kangaroo?”) at New Zealand’s first official international in Sydney in 1903 and “Ko Niu Tireni”(“The New Zealand Storm”) which was led by Maori tyro George Nepia of the “Invincibles” of 1924/25.
So the haka tottered along for more than half a century, quaint and quirky; novelty, perhaps a little naff; more circus act than war dance, always more playground than battleground. The players – and, more importantly, the punters – happy enough with a stamp here and a shriek there.
Perhaps, though, there’s a reason why it looked so different: the players had no attachment to the dance. That the 1905 lot who first Ka Mate’d to a chorus of “Land of My Fathers” in Cardiff were all white is one thing, but later, native-less tours of South Africa another entirely, as the NZRU left Maoris behind in order to please the Apartheid regime. The tradition continued but those who spawned it were absent. Evidently, New Zealand rugby hasn’t always been so attached to its Maori culture. Dollar ruling decency, it seems.
“When I first came into the side in the mid-80s,” Wayne “Buck” Shelford, the man many credit as revivalist-in-chief, tells me, “the haka basically didn’t happen. It was a tame jig at best. Many players didn’t enjoy it – they were either embarrassed or didn’t feel any connection to it. There was plenty of discussion about whether we should bother at all.
“A few of the guys asked me and Hika Reid (also a Maori) what we thought. Our response was that the haka should only be done if everyone would do it without inhibition and with understanding of the culture and history behind it. We’d need to practice and to work hard so that we could be proud of it.”
So that’s exactly what they did. Shelford and Reid led “training sessions” – not just in the history, moves and mana (pronunciation) of the dance itself but about wider Maoridom – the Marae (meeting house), and its laws and customs. Shelford and Reid had their fun, but sure enough the penny dropped and, as the Pakeha (non-Maori) members of the squad bought in, the ritual became routine, both home and away:
“Those sessions were bloody hilarious. Big, proud, butch men being asked to shed their inhibition and do a dance – some of them just had no rhythm whatsoever and had to learn how to just hang loose. By the ’87 World Cup it was a different prospect altogether.”
Now, after decades in the doldrums, a carefully-constructed revival and with history less auspicious than most Kiwis would let slip, the haka is ubiquitous. It’s undeniably the most recognisable symbol of Maoridom and arguably – even more than the team that made it famous – the most recognisable symbol of New Zealand.
“I’m proud,” says Shelford, “of the way it’s grown and my role in that. It shows off Maori culture. Maoridom has filtered more prominently into other aspects of Kiwi life since the haka’s revival – every school has one, there are tourist attractions, Maori art is more popular and companies’ logos are embossed with Maori designs in a way that they weren’t years ago.
“But it’s not just about Maoris anymore. I take pride in the way that Pakeha players embrace it these days. They’re just as passionate.”
One of the most recognisable haka-ers in modern times is Piri Weepu and thus his views on it serve as a fine barometer of the hakas current role. He tells me: “My favourite thing about the haka is going a bit wild, trying to look scary and to really lay down that challenge before kick-off. It’s a message. It’s saying to those guys opposite, ‘I’m coming for you out there.’”
This is no longer a laughing matter. The ailing animal has been regenerated, a custom secured, and unlike its rugby stars of yore, the haka – and all the perks that come with it – is a tradition all of New Zealand seems to enjoy.
And the questions those challengers ask: why is one team allowed an extra round of pre-match thunder? How can a new, specially composed haka be a tradition? The history is patchy, so is all this a construct? And, thus, is cultural pride and“tradition” masking a lust for psychological advantage and boorish, intimidatory aggression? Is there any psychological advantage anyway? Does the IRB have the right to regulate how opponents respond? Does any of this really matter?
Weepu’s words confirm two things. Firstly, the haka remains entertainment. For the most part, he whoops, giggles and smiles when recalling “such a great honour.” Yet, without question, the aggressive streak and attempts at intimidation – so oft denied by the likes of Justin Marshall (“the haka is all about us, not them”) – are there. The faces of Ali Williams or Ma’a Nonu as they perform the haka or Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu’s response to O’Driscoll’s misguided grass-toss support Weepu’s comments and betray the aggression that Marshall seeks to hide.
The throat-slit, like that grass toss (O’Driscoll was, of course, operating under guidance from Maori elders), and much other discussion of the haka, is open to cultural interpretation. In European culture, there’s little question as to what the slitting of the throat suggests. The All Blacks insist that for Maoris, the gesture represents the drawing of “hauora” – the breath of life into the heart and lungs.
This example perfectly illustrates the differences in culture that make the haka’s modern form so divisive. Why must opponents don poker faces from afar as they face something that is patently aggressive, insulting and unpleasant in their culture? Why shouldn’t they stride forward and meet the challenge with a response without the fear of a fine such as the one the French received after losing the 2011 World Cup final? Why must they allow the All Blacks the final chance to gee up their home crowd, as the Welsh so reasonably objected to in 2006?
Their refusal to leave the changing room at the Millennium Stadium in 2006 was not the only time the All Blacks have been precious and pretentious when the haka has come into question, but both Weepu and Shelford are measured and reasonable on the subject of responses, and indeed invite reaction. These days, of course, the greatest enemy of the haka answerer is the IRB and that unpublished code of conduct that stung France. The regulations leave the All Blacks’ opponents in a position tantamount to 90 seconds of torture by taunting.
Weepu admits that he was “an inch from stepping over the line and getting up real close and personal that day” (and thus copping a fine of his own), but accepts that “they’re not laying the challenge down like we are in terms of actions, words and dancing. What they’ve got to do is stand there and turn the tables on us. We’re challenging them so they should have a right to try to counter it.”
Meanwhile, Shelford views that encounter with Willie Anderson – an incident that many believe launched the arms race of haka aggression that we’ve seen in the 25 years since – as “a real highlight. We spoke about it afterwards and had both enjoyed it, the fronting up and the head on challenge. Willie’s response was the way to do it. After all, New Zealand has never won a game because of the haka. We’ve won because we’ve played better rugby across 80 minutes.”
The haka has history and is a tradition, yes. But in 30 years, the haka has been built carefully from a hack-Gangnam bop so slow and so unfashionable that it lay within an inch of its life to an undeniably intimidatory act of ceremony so entwined with New Zealand rugby that it’s hard to imagine one without the other and so visually spectacular that broadcasters covet it and the IRB works to protect its sanctity.
A look at message-boards, lounge-rooms and stadia the world over confirms that the haka remains a drawcard. No one wants to lose the haka. It’s sport’s greatest off-field theatre. But importantly we must remember that whilst this tradition is a treasure, it is also a challenge, too. Challenges await response.
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