Since I was a kid, I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team and not just because my beloved Scots have failed to defeat them every single time we’ve played.* Sure, it’s currently South Africa who are World Champions and yes, Australia have frequently dominated the Kiwis but there’s always been something special about the men in black. I don’t know if it starts with the haka war dance before the match or is simply a result of their regularly mesmerising displays of strength and talent but it’s impossible to play New Zealand without a sense of awe about the occassion. There’s been a lot of talk in England of late (read, past few years) of a, “time of development,” and the national side being a, “work in progress.” New Zealand don’t bother with such things. In a country where the population is only just four million if you exclude the sheep, a national rugby team that is the definition of excellence has become the norm, year in, year out.
I can’t tell you why it is. Perhaps it’s the kiwi mentality; as Ian McCarthy wrote, New Zealanders will not do anything normally if they can do it at double the pace with a bag of rocks on their back. Their apparent obsession with fitness is certainly not Western in origin. Perhaps it has its roots in maori warrior culture; I couldn’t say. What I do know is that when crunch time arrives and Scotland play the kiwis, mr grandfather fears a loss, my father fears a loss and so do I. Throughout our accumulated years the All Blacks have been a dominant force with a reputation unmatched throughout the sport. It doesn’t matter if England field a substansially better team than us or if Ireland are away on one of their winning streaks because when my boys play anything can happen even if the odds are against us. It doesn’t even matter, as proven last Autumn if we play the World Champions because we have a pride and courage that far outstrips our bare talent. When we play the All Blacks however… then things get difficult.
I mention this first for two reasons. Firstly to educate those of you who may be ignorant regarding the greatest team sport in the world. Secondly to make it clear that what follows is not a rant because I’m miserable about a team that regularly makes Scotland look like a bunch of amateurs.**
In 1905 the All Blacks made their first tour of Britain with their first match (against Scotland) being preceded by the haka. “Ka Mate” was also performed against the Welsh who responded with a rousing rendition of their national anthem. The performance of the dance before matches was never set in stone; towards the beginning of last century it was rarely seen in New Zealand and even on the aforemention tour, it wasn’t seen at all the matches. When the Kiwis travelled they would ask to perform the haka at the home ground’s stadium and were usually indulged.
“Ka Mate” (pronounced kah-mah-tay) is by far and away the best known haka around the world. It’s an arguably impressive war cry or ridiculous dance depending on how you see it. Whilst the sight of fifteen grown men slapping their pecs and sticking their tongues out may not sound too cool, I daresay it takes a degree of balls to stand up to even the smallest of the All Blacks whilst he’s chanting like a madman. Ka Mate as told by Wikipedia refers to, “a wily plan to defeat the aims of an enemy,” and the site goes on to tell of the, “cunning strategem,” of Chief Te Rauparaha in 1810 which works, I guess. The Chief’s story however, essentially boiled down to him running from his enemies and, quite literally, hiding under the skirts of a woman. Not the song I’d choose to strike fear into the hearts of my foes.
“Ko Niu Tireni” is an alternate haka with somewhat more inspirational lyrics. “We shall stand fearless, We shall stand exulted in spirit, We shall climb to the heavens, We shall attain the zenith the utmost heights.” Much better except to my knowledge this was only performed for one tour of Britain back in the 20s.
Last up we have the, “Kapa o Pango,” and this is where the fun begins. Like Ko Niu Tireni it has considerably better lyrics than Ka Mate – “The team in black is rumbling here, stand up to the fear,” – but it also has… a gesture. First performed against South Africa in 2005, the Kapa o Pango is much more aggressive in spirit than the more common Ka Mate featuring an extended intro by the captain and is finished off by the entire team drawing a thumb down their throats. Odds are the imagery you’re thinking of after reading that is the exact same one everyone else in the rugby community drew as well. The NZRU responded to complaints regarding this threatening gesture by conducting a review which eventually concluded that the action coupled with the last line of the chant – “Ha” short for, “hauora” – indicated the drawing of life into the lungs. Considering this is preceded by the line, “Darkness falls,” I’d call foul, but let’s accept the Kiwis defence for the sake of moving on.
Over time the All Blacks got pretty defensive about the haka. It was performed everywhere and as a result, it can be argued, it lost its appeal and effectiveness. in ’96 the Aussies, suitably bored by the same old routine, let the All Blacks get on with jumping around while they retired to the far end of the pitch and did some warm up excercises. The All Blacks responded with a furious performance and gained a record score over their old adversaries which, let’s be honest, is the manly thing to do. Good on ’em.
The Kiwis defence of their ritual over the past decade however, has become pathetic. in ’97, England player Richard Cockerill was vilified for standing toe-to-toe with his opposite number as the haka was performed. Cockerill was eventually pushed away by a fearful referee and his explanation that he was simply responding to the challenge (the haka is a war dance, after all) was largely ignored by the International Rugby Board who, when the following World Cup came around in ’99, specifically wrote to all teams involved on behalf of New Zealand and threatened them with disciplinary action if the haka was not, ‘respected.’
Hold on a second. What started off as a quaint/impressive/enjoyable tradition before odd games had now gotten to the stage where the All Blacks wanted to perform it wherever they were, however they liked and if anyone had the gall to stand up to this challenge, they were being unfair?
In 2005, Wales welcomed New Zealand to Cardiff a century after their first game together. To celebrate this, the Welsh planned a repeat of the opening events in the first game, namely the singing of God Defend New Zealand followed by the haka with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau finishing off the opening. The All Blacks agreed however after noting the positive effects on the crowd, the Welsh planned the same thing for 2006. Bear in mind that this was what Americans would call an exhibition match. Bear in mind that it was in the Welsh stadium, in the Welsh captial, in Wales, where the Welsh were hosts. Got that sorted?
The Kiwis refused to repeat the events, instead wanting to perform the haka after the singing of both national anthems. When the Welsh wouldn’t concede, the All Blacks behaved like petulant children and performed the dance in their dressing room.
Last year in the Autumn internationals, Wales again caused controversy (screw what the English say – I love those boys ) by refusing to move until the All Blacks did. What resulted was a two-minute stand-off between the teams with a clearly nervous referee in the middle. The deadlock was eventually broken by the All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw who was praised by his coach as a man of character. Giles Smith of the Times gets my vote of confidence though: “Let’s face it; your guy blinked.” All through the next week papers in both hemispheres worried about how England would respond to the Haka – would there be trouble? In the end the England players simply stood facing the haka as usual whilst the 80,000 fans of Twickenham raised the roof with a rendition of, Swing low Sweet Chariot. Still it made the news. Are you honestly telling me New Zealand expect to go to the opposition’s ground in front of opposition fans, perform a war dance and don’t expect a response?
Again in 2006, the then All Blacks captain had been accused of striking a club team mate over the head with a handbag. Shortly afterwards a TV station in Australia ran an ad showing the haka being performed (after digital manipulation) with all the players holding handbags. The reaction was not the good natured humour you might hope for. It caused national outrage with the All Blacks assistant coach whining about how it was disrespectful to Maori culture.
Seriously, don’t get me fucking started. The haka is performed as testament to the proud maori traditions of New Zealand? This coming from the same body who dumped half their maori players when they went to South Africa because the locals weren’t keen on the All-Blacks actually living up to their name? An organisation from a country where intergration has never been easily accepted, even recently? Please.
The haka is at best, an entertaining and rousing display of pride and passion before a rugby match. At its worst as it has become in recent years, it is an arrogant and aggressive piece of psychological warfare that causes division and strife like nothing else in the otherwise sanguine world of rugby union. It has evolved from a once admirable and enjoyable tradition into a symbol of hypocricy – it doesn’t even enjoy full support in its homeland.
Following the Wales stand-off last year, Kiwi captain Ma’a Nonu admitted to being upset at the reaction and stated that his main worry was for the fans back home who may have been offended. Ma’a, if I can watch your boys regularly demolish my heroes and still show appreciation and respect for all involved, then you can take a couple of Welsh guys looking you in the eye.
And if you can’t… there’s an easy solution.