Haka under attack
All Blacks vs brand power
There is something that young people start watching and understanding at a very early age in New Zealand. The haka. As an expression of national identity, the haka supersedes all else. Some said it was first seen on an international rugby ground in 1888 when performed by the “New Zealand Natives” touring party. But it is almost certain that it had by that point already been performed on New Zealand fields, in matches involving Maori teams.
Of course, it goes back deep into the mists and legends of early Maori history. It is an ancient posture dance, a challenge from a tribe of one area to another. Hakas were traditionally used to prepare a war party for battle. Ka Mate, composed almost 140 years ago by Te Rauparaha, Ngati Toa Rangatira, is the most famous haka.
All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith has never forgotten the first time he witnessed it, when he was only three or four years old. “It’s one of those special moments. It’s the time the TV gets turned right up and everyone goes quiet. It stops the party. All the men will watch the rugby, not all the women. But both will watch the haka.”
By the time he was six, Smith knew how to do it. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup in SA, there he was, in front of the television, whooping and hollering before the semifinal match where Jonah Lomu marched all over England.
“We were allowed up to see it, it was so important. A couple of friends were doing it with me. I don’t know whether we were doing it right but we were up there doing all the actions. It was pretty crazy. As a kid, it fires your imagination. It is a bit of an out-of-body experience.”
Smith’s dad is Pakeha [white], his mum Maori. The haka, he says, “is our one identity thing that only we have as a rugby nation that nobody else has, outside the Pacific. The haka is not for Maori alone. It’s for everyone in our country. All those different cultures add different things.”
One day, when he had become a regular in the national team, Smith was invited to lead the haka. “I was first asked in 2013. There were a few injuries, and guys like Mealamu and Messam weren’t there. But at the time I said no. I felt like I hadn’t played enough games and I didn’t yet have the respect to do it. I didn’t want to do it without that respect. I didn’t regret turning it down, although I remember being at that game and thinking, ‘I could have led this’. But when I led the haka it was with more mana [honour, presence or great authority].”
Mana is the key to a haka, according to Smith. Whoever leads it has usually been chief or headman. Mana is an intrinsic part of the Maori culture and is hard-earned.
Smith’s mana was damaged by an incident he got himself into with a young lady at Christchurch Airport in 2016 [they were seen entering a disabled toilet together]. Subsequent to his indiscretion, his role as haka leader was raised.
“I was one of the first to say, I should not be doing it, and that is what happened. You lose mana when you do things like that. TJ Perenara took over and I was happy for him to do that because of the mana I had lost from what I had done.”
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says: “You have got to have character. You don’t have to be perfect but a player has got to have a character that has got the ability to stand up to scrutiny and the pressure that comes from being an All Black. If his character defaults don’t allow him to do that, then he is only going to take us somewhere where we don’t honour, respect or enhance the legacy of this great team.”
By October 2017, in the Cape Town Test against SA, Smith had reclaimed his place as leader of the haka.
The haka affects people in a variety of ways. Australian David Campese used to take himself off to a corner of the field, chip a ball into the air and catch it while the All Blacks were performing it. Former Wallaby captain John Eales turned his back on it once and has regretted doing so ever since.
Former South African wing Ashwin Willemse sensed he’d cracked it as far as staring down his opponent during a haka: “I’d been very excited about the game because, in my mind, a match against the New Zealand All Blacks was my first ‘official’ Test match. I would not have felt complete, a true Springbok, if I hadn’t played the All Blacks. It was the ultimate thing to do; face the haka and play them in a Test. During the haka, I had watched my opposite number Doug Howlett intently. Then he did something that made me think he was scared. Just before the end of the haka, he put his head down and looked away. I told myself that it meant I’d won and that he was either afraid or not prepared to face the challenge, as I was. I drew strength from that.”
Howlett scored two tries and New Zealand won 52-16.
“It was clear I was completely deluded for having held such a belief,” grinned the ex-Springbok.
Former Wallaby coach John Connolly says that, in the old days, it was like “who cares?” when the haka was performed. “They waved their arms around a bit but it was all pretty insipid. But now they have turned it around to mean something. It has become a real symbol of discipline and determination in the team. They have put values around the haka which they transfer to their rugby. They have been very clever in that respect.”
Nick Farr-Jones was one who had to face them down. For the 1991 Australia World Cup-winning captain, New Zealand was always the team to beat.
But for much of his time as a Wallaby, Farr-Jones says Australian teams didn’t face the haka. They would stand maybe 60m away, he remembers. It was only when the combative David Codey was chosen as Australia captain that, for the only time, the Wallabies accepted their new captain’s demand that they face the haka and eyeball the All Blacks.
Farr-Jones said: “Personally, I loved standing up to the haka. Why? Because it’s such a great nation of 4.8million people and respect is a really important thing. So rather than be 60m away and turn your back, to get up there and eyeball them sent a sign of respect to their nation. Hopefully, you are sending a second message. Like, guys we respect you, but you are going to have to play bloody well to beat us today. We are not going to roll over. You want to send back that second challenge.”
The haka is a bold, vibrant symbol of national identity but there continue to be those in New
Zealand who question it. A few months before he died in 2017, legendary All Black Sir Colin Meads said: “We never did the haka in New Zealand, only overseas … They haka everything now. Some dignitary or sports person turns up or a film star at the airport and they haka them. It is ridiculous.”
Former All Blacks flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens has called it “too commercialised”. Ex-England scrumhalf Matt Dawson reckons it has lost its mystique. Another former All Black, prop forward Kees Meeuws, says: “It has lost its mana. It has become a showpiece. They should do it at certain Test matches but not all. It was good a few years ago when they had a choice. But now they play 14 Test matches a year and that’s too much as far as the haka is concerned. We should either have it at home or just away from home, like it used to be. Not both.”
Is an expression of identity something New
Zealand still needs in 2018? An argument may once have been made for it along the lines of it representing a little country fighting above its weight against world opponents.
Gilbert Enoka admits New Zealand rugby men themselves reached something of a crossroads over the haka. “There were a lot of guys saying they felt we were haka-ed out. They said: ‘We do the haka all the time, we have TV cameras in our faces.’ They said: ‘All I want to do is get the damn thing done and over with.’ They said: ‘It’s not for us anyway. It’s just for the Maori people.’ So we had a real crisis of identity where we had to sit down and say: ‘Who are we as New Zealanders, who are we as All Blacks?’ That was really where Kapa O Pango was born.”
Kapa O Pango, a new haka created by Derek Lardelli of the Ngati Porou, took a year to choreograph. It modified the first verse of Ko Niu Tirini, the haka used by the 1924 All Blacks. Many experts in Maori culture were asked for their views. It is regarded as complementing Ka Mate and is used for special occasions. First performed before a 2005 TriNations international against SA in Dunedin, the words used were considered more specific to the rugby team than Ka Mate. They refer to the warriors in black and the silver fern. For most of the New Zealand players, it was a more appropriate haka.
In 2009, the New Zealand government assigned intellectual-property rights in the traditional Maori haka, the Ka Mate, to Ngati Toa, a North Island tribal group. The new agreement was mainly symbolic but it was considered hugely important by Maori leaders to prevent, as the official settlement letter said, “the misappropriation and culturally inappropriate use of the Ka Mate haka”.
But given that the new professional game is now utterly dependent on television money, is it not the case that, in effect, television is the real rights holder of the haka? Television executives will be more than aware of the truth of Aaron Smith’s words: women might not watch the whole game, but they watch the haka. So would television accept it if the All Blacks decided to reduce the number of occasions on which the haka was performed? It seems unlikely.
The critical point is surely that the haka should be nurtured, protected, kept truly special. Do it at every turn, before every game on every occasion, and it will, in time, lose its allure. Even worse, it will become just a bit of showbiz. Does anyone want that?
Is it not the case that, in effect, television is the real rights holder of the haka?
● The Springboks take on New Zealand at Loftus Versfeld next weekend and few of them will be aware that the last time the All Blacks lost there Ringo Starr still had to come to terms with life after the Beatles.
That year was 1970 and on their four subsequent visits to Pretoria, the All Blacks have struck at the heart of SA.
The Springboks did beat the rebel New Zealand Cavaliers there in 1986, but that touring team by no means officially represented the All Blacks, let alone New Zealand.
The real deal arrived at Loftus 10 years later and promptly sealed a first series win on SA soil. Coach John Hart returned with his marauders in 1999 and won there again before John Mitchell’s side delivered something akin to a coup d’etat in the nation’s capital by scoring more than 50 points in a record beating of the old foe.
Alain Rolland had barely called full time when the 16-52 defeat was dubbed “the Van Riebeeck Test” for in part mimicking the year in which the Dutch explorer dropped anchor in the Cape of Good Hope.
There was nothing good about the Boks that day.
Centre Gcobani Bobo watched that match from a prime position, but he wasn’t there as an observer. He was on the Bok bench which he was never asked to vacate.
“The whole build-up was just awkward,” Bobo recalled, still a little despairingly. “We flew up from Durban and for some reason we stayed quite far outside Pretoria. Usually you try and stay close to the match venue but we didn’t. You have to prepare players mentally for that kind of thing. Don’t surprise them with it.”
Bobo recalls that the All Blacks quickly hit their stride. “We were up against players like Joe Rokocoko and Carlos Spencer who were climaxing in their career. We targeted their big players, their forwards. That plan fell down.”
Despite the Boks back-pedalling, left wing Ashwin Willemse had a blinder. He was a beacon in a sea of Springbok mediocrity.
“It was very much the breakout game for Ashwin,” Bobo said. “He scored an incredible try. He had a work rate in that game that noone could match. He was like a soldier in a losing battle.”
Rudolf Straeuli, under whose tutelage the Springboks played that day, is less vivid about what transpired.
What he does know is that the All Blacks have found ways of dealing with the debilitating effects of high altitude.
“Usually at Loftus and Ellis Park it should be more difficult for them because of the altitude. However, at both they have hit us with a vengeance,” Straeuli, who is now the CEO of the Lions, pointed out.
“It (Loftus) has been good for the All Blacks and for the Crusaders (though not in play-off matches),” noted Bobo. “Loftus leaves you with the sense that there is more width, that the field somehow is wider than, say, Ellis Park.
“It is a hard, quick surface made for a quick-tempo, high-octane game. A team like the Crusaders make sure that they use their bench well there. They target certain areas. The New Zealanders generally feel comfortable at Loftus.”
In anticipation of a high tempo, high intensity clash, both men expect crucial, if not game-changing interventions from the substitutes’ bench.
“Fitness will play a huge role,” said Straeuli. “We saw that too at Ellis Park the one year when they scored six tries and we scored four. You play to score tries and win with a bonus point. I cannot see the match degenerating into a kicking contest. You are going to see tries,” said Straeuli.
“It will be a question of who do you have? Who can change a game?” said Bobo about the respective benches.
“Conditioning and fitness will be important and both teams will feel it. We have to make sure we get the right combinations,” said the former centre.
With injury ruling out Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, Bobo believes the midfield partnership of Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel may give the Boks some confrontational impetus in midfield. He also contends the guile of Elton Jantjies may change things later. “I think Rassie may be onto something if he goes that route, but some of that may depend on how we go against the Wallabies,” said Bobo.
Straeuli advocated the selection of attackminded players. “It will be a good game. You’ll see beautiful tries. I think it will be like the last game. Both teams will have the ambition to score.
“As was the case against England in the first Test here, I will go with attackers in the side. You can’t be too defensive going into this game. Defence will come by itself, I’d go to score tries. If things don’t entirely go their way in Argentina they may be under pressure to win at Loftus,” said Straeuli.
As much as the All Blacks, as the bestranked team in the world, will be determined to set the record straight, the former Bok coach believes the current crop under Rassie Erasmus can bottle some of their experience in Wellington.
Loftus leaves you with the sense that there is more width Gcobani Bobo Former Springbok centre
The ABs won’t feel the pressure. They’ll see the challenge Rudolf Straeuli Former Springbok coach
“There was a lot of emotion and a lot of passion, things that pent up after the defeat in Brisbane. The guys were under pressure. I doubt we are under the same pressure but they can repeat it. It was good to see the players’ emotions after that Test and you could see what it meant to them. They now have a taste of that.
“We’ve had success here against the All Blacks. The Bulls beat the Hurricanes in the first match of Super Rugby this season. The guys know they can win but on the day you have to execute. We have players like Aphiwe (Dyantyi), who are steppers and attackers. We defended well in New Zealand and the right men were on the field (at the end). There were cool heads and the guys scrambled well. Warren (Whiteley) running down (TJ) Perenara under the poles was crucial because that would have levelled things.”
Straeuli is in no doubt the All Blacks will have revenge front of mind when they fly here from Argentina. “As much as it was a good win for us over there, they will come for revenge,” he said about the Boks’ memorable win in Wellington two weeks ago.
“Much like us, they don’t like losing. They, however, manage it better when it comes to bouncing back. The ABs won’t feel the pressure. They’ll see the challenge.”