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It's time for a little haka history

Roar Rookie
18th September, 2010
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Roar Rookie
18th September, 2010
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2196 Reads

There have been a couple of articles recently on The Roar regarding the haka. It’s been a popular bone of contention – how do you react to it while it’s going on and should there be some orchestrated response to it when it’s finished?

The IRB’s hamfisted attempts to regulate how other teams behave while the haka is going on (while allowing the All Blacks to make throat slitting gestures and then letting them get away with claiming that they are really just symbolically clearing their airways to breathe more deeply) only adds to the debate.

Some on The Roar may be interested to read a little on the history of the haka. I came across this article by Sean Fagan while writing a response to Stash’s article “Wallabies look to disempower the All Black haka”.

I actually found that article because it also mentioned the very ersatz Aboriginal “war dance” early Wallaby teams had foisted on them (another reason to read the article – and who remembers that the Kangaroos used to still perform a similar war dance as relatively recently as 1967?), but it’s potted history of the haka as a pre-match staple is worth looking at here. For those keen on snippets of rugby history the rest of the site is worthwhile too – the article entitled “Rugger” for example might be useful the next time someone tries to tell you that only the beautiful game should be called football.

The article puts the first use of the haka before a rugby game as that by a New Zealand team touring New South Wales in 1884, with a newspaper claiming “the NSW men declared it was hardly fair of the visitors to frighten them out of their wits before the game began.”

From there though we go to the New Zealand Natives tour of Britain in 1888, which lasted over a year and encompassed over a hundred games. The length of the tour and vast number of games was because this was very much a commercial enterprise, just as all the early major cricket tours to and from Britain were. Just as the Australian Aboriginal cricket team had been (with their boomerang and spear throwing exhibitions), the New Zealand Natives were just as much curiosities from exotic parts of the Empire as sportsmen and the pre-match haka was a very popular part of their total performance, adding that “local colour” element. One newspaper report said, speaking of the haka: “This intimidates the other side and attracts huge piles of gate money. The promoters ought to make heaps of money.”

The suggestion is that the haka was routinely performed before All Blacks matches outside New Zealand, because that was demanded by the local crowds as part of the spectacle they were paying for. The same demands were made from South African and Australian teams, who played along for a while but fairly quickly shelved their artificial attempts at local versions of the haka. The haka alone continued – though hardly as it is seen today. Sean Fagan says in his article: “Though far from being ridiculed, the All Blacks haka too was not performed with any vigour nor real understanding by the players either. It too appeared likely to fade away.”

Fagan goes on to point out, “It wasn’t until Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, a fiercely proud Maori, assumed the All Blacks captaincy in 1987 that the war cry entered a new era; one of real cultural significance. Shelford famously demanded of his All Blacks team mates to “Do it f**king right, or don’t do it all!’”

It was also only in 1987 that the haka began being performed before all home All Black tests.

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So, while I have nothing at all against the haka (I like it – it’s part of the occasion), and I’m all for respecting traditions, flags, cultures and the like, I do think it’s a bit rich to treat the haka with too much reverence. It’s status as an essential non-negotiable quasi-religious pre-match ritual which brooks no argument is really very recent. As a Maori tradition, it is no doubt significant and deserving of respect. Adapted as a pre-rugby performance, it has its basis in commercial imperatives and its lineage is short.

Criticising or debating a pre-rugby ceremony that is a transformed Maori ceremony is a different thing from criticising the Maori ceremony itself. People, including the IRB, who get too defensive about the haka and how teams respond to it would do well to remember that, and to remember the pre-game haka’s commercial history.