Friday, 25 October 2019

Hacked off by the Haka

The rugby world cup has been a great success, typhoons notwithstanding, particularly because of the Japanese hosts: both their organisation and their joyous, fast, entertaining play. But now we move on to the business end of the tournament with the expected big guns in the semi-finals.

I am hoping Wales and England will play well and win. I am rather more confident about Wales, though they haven't played that well yet. As ever, England will have to play a solid game through the whole match to beat the All Blacks who, not unreasonably, have been described as the most outstanding team in world sport in recent decades.

England's first problem with the All Blacks is one I share: what to do about the haka, their pre-match ritual inspired by Maori culture. I don't care for the haka, partly because it is clearly ridiculous - it must be almost demeaning to perform. It's not so much that the All Blacks perform their ritual,  which is clearly intended to be not only motivational but also confrontational and intimidating, more the range of problems that it has thrown up in terms of how opposition teams respond.

 I'm not the only one who feels this way, though I admit I'm in a minority. I've been reading two interesting histories of the haka. One you can read at gives a history of recent responses by other teams which have included teams going nose to nose with the All Blacks and the Tongans performing a kind of rival ritual at the same time. These pranks have usually not ended well as they seem to have motivated the All Blacks to even higher levels of performance. For example, in 1997 hooker Richard Cockerill, making his test debut for England, crossed the halfway line to go nose to nose with his opposite number during the haka. There was some pushing and shoving before the referee intervened. As the teams took their positions England captain Martin Johnson asked Cockerill "what the *** have you done?". New Zealand won 25-8. There are many other examples of teams confronting or ignoring the haka, only to motivate the All Blacks performing it.

During the Lions tour of 2005, coach Sir Clive Woodward did some research and formulated a response which was intended to both respect the haka and show the All Blacks his team were ready for battle. “It was based on getting an email from a Māori,” said Woodward. “It said the chief (O’Driscoll) should go out with one of the youngest players and he should then accept the challenge after the haka is done by picking up and throwing a piece of grass in the air as a mark of respect and friendship. That’s why we did it. We thought it was a nice idea.” He perhaps should have shared this idea with his opposite number, since the it is possible that the Kiwis did not think it was such a nice idea: this was the match in which, after less than one minute's play, O'Driscoll was picked up and slammed down on his neck by two New Zealand players. I hadn't been aware of this possible connection.

The haka does have a long history - when Wales played New Zealand for the first time in Cardiff in 1905 it was performed between the two national anthems, rather than immediately before the kick off. In a match to mark the centenary of the first game Wales persuaded New Zealand to recreate the original sequence. (It didn't change much, the All Blacks won 41-3).  Wales asked for the same change in 2006, citing consultation with two Maori chiefs that their national anthem was an appropriate response to the haka. Despite six weeks notice the New Zealanders resisted and, after a stand off, decided to perform their routine in their dressing room. The crowd, puzzled by the absence of the haka, booed and New Zealand won 45-10.

Before the 1991 World Cup semi final, Australian David Campese ignored the haka by practicing his kicking before going on to produce a great individual performance as the Aussies won 16-6. Other teams have gone into a pre-game huddle to blot out the noise and gurning. But this option seems to have been squashed as I understand World Rugby has decreed that opposition teams must "respect" the haka. This seems to me to be handing an instiutionalised advantage to the Kiwis. 

But in an interesting rugby blog called blitzdefence (sounds more gridiron,  know) I came across at  the writers said "It's time to end the haka" arguing that, while the haka has been performed for over a hundred years, a look at old videos shows it changed beyond recognition in the 1980s. For example, take a look at this rather comical you tube clip of the haka in 1973: 

By 2005 it's a lot more aggressive:

Moreover, until 1986 it was performed exclusively overseas, not in New Zealand. So much for tradition.

The problem is it leaves opponents, under instruction to "respect" the haka, a dilemma. Stand there and watch? Or turn your backs on them, risk censure and motivating the opposition further?

Blitzdefence argue that, in an era of professional sport, it is wrong to give the All Blacks special treatment by allowing them to perform their ritual immediately before kick off and not other teams whatever the supposed cultural significance. Oh yes, it is special treatment: the Aussies had Waltzing Matilda blasted out for a while before kick off until the 2003 World Cup where it was decreed teams could have only one song, i.e. their national anthem, apart from songs that are culturally important. Which turned out to just be the haka. (OK, so just sing it and stand still then!) 

Blitzdefence suggest it's time to give opposing teams the choice of whether the All Blacks can perform the haka before kick off or whether, if they want to perform it on the pitch, they must do so well before the national anthems, perhaps 20 minutes before kick off, i.e. while the teams are doing their warm up. I would add, if it's done while both teams are on the pitch, let them perform it at one end, facing the crowd, not adjacent to the half way line. 

The crowd can, of course, intervene: in 2012 the Twickenham crowd blotted out the haka with Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

That option isn't open to England tomorrow. Their best response will be to simply go out and win the game. At least I can't see Owen Farrell being intimidated.

But the haka has become a distraction. Shift it away from kick off and let's concentrate on the game.

P.S. England's "V" formation, boxing in the All Black's haka and making them look rather like a bunch of snooker reds waiting to be scattered, was perhaps the most effective opposition response to date. And I loved Owen Farrell's wry smirk. But I enjoyed the England performance in the match far more. This England team was confident enough to not be intimidated by the All Blacks reputation. It was one of the best English rugby performances I've seen. A shame the Welsh couldn't produce a good enough performance against South Africa.

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