A Bluffer's Guide to... the Haka

It’s the enduring trademark of Southern Hemisphere rugby, but New Zealand’s pre-game war dance is about more than intimidation on a massive scale.

Piri Weepu leads the Haka prior to New Zealand's group stage match with France at Eden Park.
Piri Weepu leads the Haka prior to New Zealand's group stage match with France at Eden Park.
Image: Ross Land/AP/Press Association Images

I already know about this: it’s the dance the All Blacks do?

It is, but there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye…

Go on.

The term Haka is an umbrella term used to describe a genre of Maori war dance. There are thousands of different Haka, with every tribe and region favouring particular verses and movements over others.

Rugby teams from New Zealand have been performing the Haka since the mid-1880s, when it was considered more of a colonial oddity than anything else. The New Zealand Native squad that toured the British Isles in 1888-9 even planned to perform the war dance in full tribal regalia.

Though the national side has performed the Haka regularly since the turn of the twentieth-century, it was for decades rarely performed on home soil; so much so that, but by the mid-1980s, it looked like it was in danger of drifting into disuse.

It was only thanks to the efforts of a few players, including All Blacks captain Wayne Shelford, that the tradition was rehabilitated and elevated to the status of indispensible historical theatre.

Speaking to the London Evening Standard, Shelford later explained the transition in terms of New Zealand’s fraught adjustment to multi-culturalism:

“The haka died for a few years and the performances were just embarrassing… The white boys didn’t want to do it because they weren’t very well educated, they didn’t want to know about it. But we made a decision as a team to at least try to do it properly. I helped teach the words and actions and some of the players became interested in Maori culture later because of it.”

Well, which one do they dance now?

The most famous Haka is the “Ka Mate”. Its chorus of “Ka mate, ka mate/ Ka ora’ Ka ora’” (translated as “I die, I die/ I live, I live”) commemorates the escape of its author, Te Rauparaha, from what appeared to be certain death at the hands of his enemies, and has been performed by the All Blacks since 1906.

Here’s Maori-educated scrum-half Piri Weepu leading the “Ka Mate” against Japan at this year’s World Cup.

More recently, the All Blacks have taken to performing the “Kapo o Pango”, a more aggressive alternative to the “Ka Mate”.

Debuted in 2005, it places a greater emphasis on call-and-response between the squad and the dance’s leader, culminating in an unambiguous and slightly controversial drawing of the right thumb across the throat.

It was performed as recently as last weekend, prior to the All Black’s quarter-final clash with Argentina.

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How come opponents just stand there watching it?

It hasn’t always been that way. The Haka became a bit of a battleground back in the 1990s, with some teams opting to advance threateningly on the All Blacks mid-performance (a decision largely in keeping with Maori tradition) and others doing all that they could to ignore or demean it.

Aussie legend David Campese– no stranger to controversy– was fond of lingering in the Wallabies 22 to play keepy-uppy, while his compatriot Scott Young grabbed headlines in the early Nineties when he decided to spoil the spectacle by winking and blowing kisses at the performers.

The twenty-first century Haka is protected by an IRB-imposed ten-metre dead zone, into which oppostion players are forbidden to encroach.

Hm. So what can I expect on Sunday?

Well, you can expect Piri Weepu– who Lisa Reweti, an expert in Maori traditional dance, decribed as “awesome” during an interview with the Daily Telegraph– to get very animated, for a start.

As for the Haka itself, the “Kapo o Pango” tends to make an appearance on the biggest occasions. Mind you, it would be refreshing if 1903′s, Aussie-intimidating “Tena Koe Kangaroo” received a second airing:

“Tena koe, Kangaroo (How are you, Kangaroo)

Tupoto koe, Kangaroo! (You look out, Kangaroo!)

Niu Tireni tenei haere nei (New Zealand is invading you)

Au Au Aue a! (Woe woe woe to you!)”

Here’s hoping.

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