We have been treated to a number of Hakas over the last few weeks and with the test series between the Lions and the All Blacks just starting, there are plenty more to come.
But is the Haka appropriate for modern, professional elite sport or is it an historic sporting anachronism that should be consigned to the rugby dustbin?
Was the Haka always like this?
Looking back in the Youtube archives we find this little gem, showing Sid Going leading the All Blacks in the 1973 fixture against the Barbarians. Note that the Barbarians aren’t forced to face the Haka and the rather leisurely pace and tempo of the performance.
Fast forward a few decades and we see a completely different approach.
The fairly sedate Haka of the 1970s has been replaced by an overtly confrontational version, with South Africa being forced to stand opposite and accept the “challenge”. Gone are the friendly faces and slightly comical movements of the earlier Haka; to be replaced by bulging eyes, puffing cheeks, lolling tongues, aggressive body language and the controversial throat slitting gesture.
But it’s 2017 and this isn’t the old amateur days of friendly rugby, this is now a professional game with people’s livelihoods and careers depending on results.
World Rugby should now tell New Zealand to drop the Haka – there are 3 strong reasons why.
It’s our history and culture
“The All Blacks have been performing the Haka for well over 100 years now”, says Dan Carter in some promotion fluff for their corporate sponsors AIG. He may technically be right but there are two aspects to this that need to be considered.
The first – highlighted in the clips above, is that the nature of the Haka has changed considerably as the decades have progressed. Today’s Haka bear’s no resemblance at all to the Haka of the pre-1980s.
Does this mean that the older versions of the Haka were not true to the history and culture of the Maori challenge and that the more recent versions are a more accurate portrayal of the Maori’s cultural heritage?
A more cynical view would be that the All Blacks now use the Haka as a tool to both intimidate the opposition and to provide inspiration and strength for themselves.
What started off as a low key homage to Maori culture has now become a well choreographed show, more akin to Broadway than Rotoroa. The All Blacks have even written their own Haka – Kapa O Pango.
The second aspect to note is that the historical use of the Haka (in the rugby context), is not as clear cut as you’d think.
It may have been first used by the New Zealand “Natives” team in 1888, but it was used exclusively for overseas fixtures until 1986.
This means from the turn of the 20th century to the end of the 1970s the Haka would have been performed about 100 times in test matches – there was a rarity value and understandable interest from oversees audiences to witness it. Compare this to the average of 12-15 games that New Zealand play in a calendar year nowadays and we start to understand why interest has reached saturation point for many.
It was Buck Shelford who redefined the All Black’s Haka as the aggressive “war dance” we see today and also introduced the Haka to New Zealand’s home fixtures.
A cultural icon or commercial vehicle?
We are told that the Haka has special cultural resonance with New Zealand’s rugby team and must therefore be treated with respect. Any slight (perceived or real) against the Haka is criticised by commentators in New Zealand and often by the sport’s governing body, World Rugby.
We know that World Rugby’s tournament rules dictate that the opposition have to face the Haka and must retain a certain distance. They have been happy to levy fines against teams that have breached these protocols.
On one hand opposition teams must respect the cultural heritage but on the other, the Haka is now used as a commercial tool for the All Blacks. There are legitimate questions to ask around the devaluation of the cultural heritage given the commercial exploitation by a number of large corporate sponsors.
This issue was covered in more detail by The East Terrace in this article, which highlighted a number of advertising campaigns and promotional campaigns which exploited the sacred Haka.
Here is an example. A few minutes extolling the history and symbolism of the Maori culture and the Haka, drawing on the links with the All Blacks……all for a video by Beats by Dre.
If the Haka can be used to sell life insurance policies, savings accounts or headphones for commercial gain, why are France or Ireland forced to stand and accept the Haka on the rugby field?
Can anyone image a football world cup final where Argentina are forced to stand in front of Brazil (don’t encroach within 10 metres though!), as they perform a national dance? Or England being made to watch a traditional Bavarian cultural performance in a fixture against Germany, while being made to respectfully stand and watch?
It wouldn’t happen, so why do we still have it in rugby?
Part of the reason is rugby is still anchored in the old amateur days. Players had day jobs, so a defeat wasn’t great but no livelihoods were at stake; today’s players, coaches and support teams are reliant on the income from rugby to support their families.
The other reason is the commercial opportunities for both the All Blacks and World Rugby that come from the Haka.
Does the Haka give a material advantage to the All Blacks? We can never prove this assertion but if you look at the quotes from ex-players, you get a sense of the importance placed on it’s meaning and symbolism. Here is a quote from Ma’a Nonu after the Welsh standoff in 2009:
“What the Welsh did wound us up… it was really hard (to accept),”
Aaron Cruden talks in the AIG promotional video about what the Haka means to him:
“Spiritually, gaining strength from the guys beside us….getting that positive energy going”.
Why wouldn’t an All Black gain an advantage from it? The mere fact the opposition is forced to stand and face the Haka, immediately confers a power inbalance. It says the All Blacks are dictating the order of these proceedings and you (the opposition) are powerless to do anything.
The way the All Blacks choose the positioning of players in the formation (more experienced at the front) and the shape of the formation (the triangle suggests something aiming at the opposition) is not by chance. They fully understand the psychological impact on the opposition.
In professional sport, both teams should be given a level playing field on which to perform. Allowing one team to perform a Haka just before kick off without the right of response of the opposition, immediately skews this playing field and gives one team an advantage.
Time to end the Haka?
These are the reasons why the Haka should be removed from the official pre-match programme.
There are legitimate claims why the Haka may be performed and the economic benefits accruing from it shouldn’t be overlooked in the world of competing professional sports. We would therefore not propose scrubbing the Haka completely but the following rules should be introduced:
- The opposition team should be given the opportunity to decide whether the All Blacks can perform the Haka immediately prior to kick off. Some teams may be happy to face it, while others (Pacific Island teams) will also want to perform their own versions.
- If the opposition team declines, the All Blacks are welcome to perform the Haka on the pitch in the lead up to kick off, but not less than 20 minutes before kick off.
This second point will mean that the cultural element can be satisfied and those supporters that want to see it, can do so, but it removes the requirement for the opposition to be present and face it.
This compromise should keep New Zealand happy while also recognising that rugby is now a professional game and needs to act as such.
To see the best and worst responses to the Haka read this article.
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