- New Zealand Listener - http://www.listener.co.nz -

Haka unfair to other nations

Post-Rugby World Cup, pre-cold turkey observations, Part Two: whither the haka?

Even though the International Rugby Board (IRB) ruled France was out of order with its V-formation advance on the All Blacks, it’s the haka that will remain under suspicion.

It seems absurd and unfair that the other team should have to stand motionless exuding respect or, at worst, feigning boredom while the All Blacks thunder out their challenge. Deciding what constitutes an appropriate response, however, is more difficult than the IRB’s critics would have us believe.

The Guardian’s Barney Ronay argues it should be treated as “a challenge that is there to be met in whatever way its opponents can muster”. The problem with this, and the reason for the IRB directive that neither team should advance beyond its 10m line during the haka, is that it introduces an unpredictable if not combustible element to proceedings.

In Dublin in 1989 the Irish team linked arms and marched forward until they were almost rubbing noses with the All Blacks. All Blacks prop Steve McDowell later confessed if he’d had to put up with wild Irishmen in his face for much longer, he would have belted one of them.

Eight years later in Manchester, Norm Hewitt and English hooker Richard Cockerill had to be prised apart by the referee. Then there was the farcical situation at Cardiff in 2008 when the post-haka stare-off dragged on for minutes while referee Jonathan Kaplan pleaded with the players to start the game.

The reality, especially at World Cups, is that other teams will be less and less inclined to stand there and absorb a ritual that, whatever the cultural connotations, in the immediate sporting context is designed to intimidate them and pump up the All Blacks.

And who can blame them for looking for ways to make a statement of their own, especially when, by accident or design, the haka becomes more confrontational with each passing season? Wayne Shelford is rightly credited with transforming the All Blacks haka from a sheepish shuffle to a rousing call to arms, but today’s version makes Shelford’s look like a poi dance.

The case against the haka, and the insistence it must be respected, is that it undermines the core sporting principle of a level playing field. Other teams must wonder why the best side in the world should be guaranteed the last word, and a belligerent word at that, while they are obliged to enter the contest with a show of respect.

When the Welsh tried to have the last word at Cardiff in 2006 by insisting their national anthem would follow rather than precede the haka, the All Blacks accused their hosts of disrespect and performed it in the privacy of their dressing room. Neutral observers detected preciousness and a rather overbearing sense of entitlement.

Then there’s the vexed matter of the “throat-slitting gesture” that concludes Kapa o Pango, now the All Blacks’ haka of choice in big matches.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan’s recent criticism triggered what he called “an outpouring of bile from hundreds of Kiwis”, although it wasn’t clear whether they objected to his condemnation of the gesture or his statement that it reminded people Maori “once engaged in unspeakable conduct”. (Unlike, say, white Australians whose conduct has always been saintly.)

But Sheehan’s contention that the rest of the rugby world doesn’t buy the explanation for the gesture – that it signifies the drawing of the breath of life into the heart and lungs – is less easily dismissed. The very fact it’s routinely referred to as “the throat-slitting gesture” demonstrates that.

When Ma‘a Nonu pointed at a French player immediately after making the gesture, was he really saying “Get some nuclear-free air into your lungs, mon vieux”? It’s safe to assume the Frenchman he singled out didn’t think so.
As Kiwi caddie Steve Williams has discovered, it doesn’t really matter what you think you’ve said or done if the rest of the world views it in an entirely different light.