Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Haka debate — again

November 27, 2006

In the build-up to the Wales vs. New Zealand test last week, the NZ Herald's resident wind-up merchant (and league columnist!) Chris Rattue penned a controversial column titled, "Sorry, but Wales are rubbish", where Rattue didn't win any friends in the coal towns and valleys by calling Wales, quote, "the village idiot of rugby." The Welsh daily tabloid Western Mail splashed their outrage on the front page. Of course, it was a steaming pile of overheated silliness, and I dismissed it as frivolous (and rather lame) gamesmanship. But no longer had the heat subsided but damn! if the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) shouldn't prove Rattue right.

The weekends' big scandal has been the haka controversy, or rather, the All Blacks decision not to perform their haka after the WRU renegged on their earlier promises of protocol. The WRU wanted to make the sequence anthem-haka-anthem-kickoff. The NZRU reluctantly agreed to this protocol last year for the Centenary test between the two nations. But they were adamant this was a special one-off, and that they would revert to the regular tradition of the haka being performed immediately prior to kick-off for all future test matches. "It won't happen again for another 100 years," then-All Black skipper Tana Umaga insisted. That was a line in the sand.

The Welsh Union renegged on their word and expected the same treatment this year. The kiwis rejected it, and instead prepared to perform the haka in the changing rooms. The WRU restricted camera access to the room. A camera was snuck in by a Sky Sports cameraman, who was promptly ejected from the stadium. It was peevish and embarrassing. A haka was performed by the All Blacks in the hallway to their changing room, and captured on "leaked" video. When the 76,000 spectators in attendance got wind that the test was starting without the haka, the fans got angry, and the consequence is a serious and devisive rift between two unions. Now the WRU is crying to the IRB. And they've got lots of supporters in the guise of British columnists and former international players lining up to join them, opining the haka should be banned, and calling the All Blacks "precious," "pompous" and "bullies."

That's the short version of this ridiculous story. If you really need to know more, go to wikipedia or simply google "All Blacks" + "Wales" + "haka" into the news browser and you'll get more than you need, most of it uninformed opinion. As ridiculous as it seems, the story is getting more play than all the past weekends' test match action, combined.

There is a lot of emotion in the arguments, and so much garbage being strewn about calling "foul!" so let's try to take a step back, point out a few things that aren't being mentioned in British screeds, and try to find the simplest remedy.

First, He Said/ She Said "Bullies" dep't.:

Brendan Gallagher of the Telegraph writes:

How the haka reveals the All Blacks as bullies

[...] "Just when you want to praise the All Blacks for playing magnificent mould-breaking rugby, they revert to their bullying stereotype."

All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen says:

"At the end of the day this is a team that makes its own decisions, it's not going to bullied around by anybody, especially over something as dear to them as the haka."

So who is right? Consider:

Last year the WRU assured future tests between the sides would revert to traditional All Black haka protocol. This was publicly known. According to the WRU's own press release, they walked away from that agreement and instead negotiated by consulting two outside experts in Maori-dom, one of whom refutes what they're claiming.

On November 11th -- two weeks ago -- Wales hosted a test match with the Pacific Islanders at Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. The PI team performed their haka. The haka was performed immediately preceeding the kick-off -- precisely the traditional protocol the All Blacks expected.

Let's go back to Brendan Gallagher:

For decades, the haka was a bit of fun. Footage throughout much of the last century shows grizzly All Blacks performimg it and clearly laughing at what then seemed an absurdity.

During the 1972-73 All Black tour the players, few of whom were Maori, only bothered to perform it once during 26 matches throughout Britain and Ireland.

However it has now morphed into a strong political statement for a young and ethnically-diverse nation.

Many observers feel that in the process the haka has been hijacked from the Maoris, and re-invented under the influence of political correctness.

Now, it has become something it never was and afforded a mystical status it never possessed.

This is where half-truths can really get us into strife.

It's true that the ABs only performed one haka on the 1972-73 tour. But this requires context.

There was an awakening of racial identity in New Zealand rugby in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 1970 All Black tour to South Africa was notable for it being the first time that non-pakeha (non-whites) were permitted to tour the republic. Bryan Williams, the All Black tour sensation, had his passport stamped "Honorary White." Prior to that tour the great Maori players of yesteryear, like George Nepia, were never allowed to tour South Africa. The fact the All Blacks were racially integrated is a big reason why people like Nelson Mandela cheered for the All Blacks against the Springboks.

And it's also almost certainly true that most kiwis -- even Maoris -- had little sense of their Maori language and culture. For many generations the language almost became extinct. There are many tales of Maoris being punished for speaking their native tongue. Nowadays Maori is an official state language. What Brendan Gallagher sneers and demeans as "political correctness," I call cultural & ethnic preservation. The Maoris are, of course, absolutely entitled to their culture, and as a nation attempting to forge an identity, most progressive Kiwis in the 1960s understood Maori culture was important, even if they didn't know very much about it.

When the 1972-73 tour commenced it was again almost as certainly true that the make-up of the All Blacks was predominantly white and many felt uneasy about performing a cultural ritual of which they knew little. So the awkward players elected to stop.

Gallagher is correct the ABs only performed it once on the '72/73 tour, but he omits to mention it was for the last game of the British tour and only meant as a fence-mending gesture. Look at the damage the ABs abandoning the haka in Britain stirred:


(Wallace Reyburn: The Winter Men: The Seventh All Blacks Tour (Hutchison, 1973).)

As Reyburn asserts, the All Blacks had heretofore always been hugely popular around the world, but British rugby spectators quickly turned on the All Blacks and resented them for abandoning the haka. The stink wouldn't end. The '72/73 All Blacks felt obliged to perform one haka as a going-away goodwill gesture. And the lingering memory of that tour was a stain they wanted to erase.

Brendan Gallagher can say with a straight face that the haka the All Blacks used to do was just "a bit of fun." But when those All Blacks decided to stop performing the haka, the fun stopped and the British rugby fan started grumbling and whinging. The haka was already "precious" -- not just to the All Blacks, but to the global rugby audience who felt it was owed them. The All Blacks were cornered. They were OBLIGED to perform the haka for the "fun" and hoopla spectacle of "Smells Like Teen Spirit -- Entertain Us!" ignoramuses such as Brendan Gallagher. It was a tradition that spectators around the world expected and loved, but woe to any All Black team that dared to spoil the fun.

For all intents and purposes, the peevish British reaction to the non-haka during the 1972-73 tour only underscored the haka was more precious to the spectator in the U.K. than it was to the All Black players themselves! It was the British rugby spectator that made the Haka part of the All Black "brand" at a time when they were actually backing away from it. O delicious irony.

By the time All Black skipper Wayne Shelford took over the team in the 1980s, as Gallagher mentions, the team that more racially diverse than a decade earlier. Shelford was a Maori and a naval man with a strong affinity for his culture and a drill sargeants' ability to get things done -- a natural and motivated leader. Shelford was determined that if the global rugby community was going to demand the haka, then the All Blacks were not going to "embarrass" themselves or their culture, and they were going to do it properly. Shelford demanded the team respect the culture and history and tradition of the Haka. The All Black players bought into it enthusiastically because it felt authentic, instead of phony and embarrassing.

Does all of that rise to the level of being "precious"? Well, of course, guilty as charged. Culture is always precious and sacred to those who value it, and mocked by those that don't. In somebody elses' eyes the Mona Lisa is just a worthless drawing; the Crown Jewels simply overpriced baubles and trinkets; the Shroud of Turin nothing more than an oily rag. Culture is always precious to the people that own it and want to protect and preserve it, even if they are screeching bagpipes. Is that being "pompous"? If you ask me, people living in nations that swear fealty and devotion to inbred German bloodlines should be the last ones accusing anybody else of pomposity.

Thankfully, there are still a few British rugby players and characters that can tough it out with the best of them.

Former England hooker Brian Moore, The Telegraph:

There may be subtle factors at work like the supposed power of the black jersey and, in particular, the Haka.

I still find this difficult to believe, but before the 1993 Test we actually had a meeting about the Haka. It was deemed that this gave the Kiwis a psychological advantage and that it had developed from something done without too much significance into a war-like, intimidatory weapon. We discussed unbelievably ridiculous proposals, simply accepting the proffered premise without demur.

Among the suggestions were: we should turn our backs on it; we should go behind our own posts; we should take our tracksuits off while they were performing. I think the only thing that wasn't forwarded was that we respond in kind with a Morris Dance. Eventually I simply said that I wanted to face what was a unique moment of theatre in sport – and there are too few of them as it is – and that if anyone was truly intimidated by the Haka they shouldn't be on the field in the first place.

As a competitor what better incitement, or call to arms, could you have than the direct confrontation of the Haka?

What was going through my mind as Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Blacks captain, glared at me during the ritual? I thought 'you'd better get me before I get you'. In retrospect this seems risibly macho, but it was the only state of mind in which to confront the best hooker of all time – if you let Fitzy bully you, it was all over. As it happens, we won that game.

To understand the force of the silver fern you have to tour New Zealand and experience the unique claustrophobia that envelops international players around the time of the World Cup or the Lions tour. Unlike any other country on earth, rugby is in the soul of the country. While not everybody takes a direct interest in the game, I am sure that virtually nobody is unaware of the progress of the national team.

There is no British equivalent of a successful All Blacks captain. Even if the England football team had won the World Cup in Germany this summer, there would be pockets of the population who either did not know or did not care. Allied to this, because of the physical nature of the sport, players get respect no matter what team they play for. No one thinks they are overpaid, unprofessional, half-wits.

This brings with it huge pressure to succeed and the Kiwis have learnt to accept this and use it as a continual spur. They are conscious of their rugby heritage in a way that we are not and aware that failure is not acceptable. Long before they were being paid, the All Blacks were professional in outlook and it is their attention to detail that stands out – they instil the basic skills of the game at a very early age.

And, as I am continually saying, without these basics working, when you are under pressure you don't win the big ones.

It's pitiful that sometimes the thing that most brings tears to the eyes is simple common sense. Mr. Moore, I thank you.

The curious and common thing about all the tired haka controversies is that they only ever seem to raise their ugly heads in one part of the world, directed against one particular team, and only during campaigns when that particular team is particularly strong.


South Africans never complain about the haka. Not ever. They respect the tradition, but they are neither awed nor scared by it.

Coincidence? Consider the futility:

  • Since 1953, the ABs have a win-loss record of 19 and 0 against the Welsh. (By contrast, South Africa has proven they can actually compete against NZ.)

  • Prior to Saturday's test match, the cumulative scoreline of those first 18 tests since '53 was NZ 609 Wales 177.

  • Add Saturday's 45-10 haka-less thumping and the numbers don't get any prettier (654-187).

  • That's an average scoreline of NZ 34 Wales 10.

  • Inky nails it:

    "For a rugby fan it was like a sparrow falling to the ground with God watching.

    "Once again the haka had become controversial.

    "And you know what that means if you're the next team squarely in the All Blacks' path...

    "That's right... Kung Fu City. Call a priest. Sucks to be you."

    Damn straight. So -- who can blame the WRU for wanting to dictate terms on the haka? They were desperate and wanted to take the *edge* off the All Blacks. But it backfired. Badly.

    "Did it fire us up?" Jerry Collins asked. "Take a look at the scoreboard, mate."

    The Red Terror's simple remedy:

    The All Blacks needs to announce a new policy on the haka. They should ONLY perform it at home test matches *and* ONLY at away tests at the request of the host nation's union.

    The host union will know in advance the All Blacks simple standard terms of protocol -- perform the haka after both anthems and prior to kick-off, as has long been tradition -- and the NZRU can either accept or reject the host's request. Pressure from rugby fans of EVERY union in the world will rain down on their home unions to make that request. Fans of ALL teams want to see the haka, so does TV and sponsors. The unions would feel obliged to defer to tradition and either accept the All Blacks simple terms of protocol, or run the risk of pissing off spectators everywhere, like we saw on Saturday.

    The way it is right now, the ABs lose for doing the haka; and they lose for not doing the haka. That's a lose-lose proposition. The NZRU needs to eliminate both losing sides of that public mess, take control and prevent whiny schoolgirls like Nick Cain and Mick Cleary and Stephen Jones and Brendan Gallagher from continually spoiling one of the great rituals in all of world sports. If the NZRU adopts this simple plan, they would have nothing to lose, and the other unions would have to make the decision they feel would be right and best for rugby.

    (Oh, and if some teams opt out of requesting the haka, well, they'll just have to consider in advance the potential consequences of whether it'll fire up the Jerry Collins and Ali Williams'es or pacify them. Given the evidence of Saturday's rout, the answer seems rather obvious.)

    [Update:] *sigh*

    Former Wales captain Paul Thorburn tells BBC Wales he believes the WRU decision had set a precedent for next year's World Cup and that other teams will also insist on their national anthems being played after the haka as a response.

    [Thorburn] said if the All Blacks maintain their stance it could result in the haka never being performed in public again.

    A final point, re: ridiculing tradition:

    When we are debating sporting ceremonies and rituals -- be it reciting the "fundamental principles" of the Olympic games, or watching international rugby players stomping their feet before kick-off -- it is easy to lose sight of the meaning of traditional sporting customs. Some people will belittle and ridicule these customs, and that is entirely their right of course, but ignorance deserves to be called out for what it is.

    Many football fans around the world, for instance, are aware that Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" is the anthem of Liverpool FC (-- or if you're Scottish, you may claim Celtic co-opted it first). Liverpool FC is rightly one of the most famous sports clubs in the world. Visit Anfield and you can walk under their bronze arch that says, "You'll Never Walk Alone," and get an idea what that song means to Liverpool and British soccer fans.

    Indeed, when you think about Liverpool's famous red soccer team, that Rodgers & Hammerstein song is part & parcel of the teams' identity, in a similar way that the "Ka Mate" haka is identified with the All Blacks. The rituals and customs are certainly different, but both have strong meaning to the identities of each team.

    Of course, when you think about Liverpool, it's also difficult to forget things like the Heysel disaster and the Hillsborough disaster. Those tragedies "changed" the way Liverpool fans feel about their team and instilled new meaning into the team anthem. So when Liverpool fans are commemorating those tragedies and singing their anthem, understand when they sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" they are not literally and figuratively asking a parasitic ne'er-do-well carnival barker in 19th-century Maine to walk with them -- which is the literal and figurative meaning of that song.

    To a Liverpudian, "You'll Never Walk Alone" is bigger than the plight of Billy Bigelow in the same way that the All Blacks haka is no longer about overseas Kiwis performing pattycake for the entertainment of ignorant pillocks, no matter how badly some cynics want a return to ye good olde days. The haka is not simply a tribal war dance any more; it is a custom that is a part of the identity and legacy of the world's greatest rugby team.


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