The East Terrace
The tricky issue of the Haka
James Stafford
September 17, 2010
Richie McCaw leads the All Blacks in the haka, Australia v New Zealand, Tri-Nations, ANZ Stadium, Sydney, Australia, September 11, 2010
All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw leads his players in another spirited rendition of the haka © Getty Images

New Zealand's forthcoming tour to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland has left many in the rugby world feeling 'extremely awkward' about how to respond to the All Blacks' famous Haka.

The increased concern comes about after the Australian Rugby Union was fined £1000 during the Women's Rugby World Cup in England after the Australian team committed the ever so serious crime of moving several metres towards the All Blacks' famous challenge. The IRB are now keen that teams remain ten metres away from the Haka when it is being peformed.

Officials from one Home Union, who wish to remain anonymous, have secretly revealed that they are paying for their entire national squad to have cross-cultural 'etiquette and sensitivity training' to ensure no upset is caused when they entertain the All Blacks this Autumn.

A spokesperson for the IRB called upon competing nations to simply follow a few simple guidelines to respond to the war dance: "Firstly, whatever you do don't march within ten metres anymore as that will get you fined. We no longer wish to encourage classic bits of sporting theatre à la Wille Anderson in Dublin in 1989, Richard Cockerill in 1997 or like France in 2007. We want everything stage-managed and smooth. Everything must be sweet and nice for the newly-found television audiences. Secondly, please don't turn your back on the Haka, this is must unsporting. We recommend not staring too aggressively either, we don't want any un-called for confrontation. Please don't do any kind of warm up or physical activity either, this is not called for at all and will cause offence."

Despite listing several possible faux pas, no one from the IRB was able to give advice on what actions would not cause offence.

"With so many possibilities for insulting the All Blacks, we really don't quite know what to do," said an RFU spokesperson. "We were going to consult some Maoris, or people with a deep knowledge of New Zealand culture, as to what to do during and after the Haka. However, we started talking about that and then remembered when someone last did that, Clive Woodward in 2005 with the Lions, the All Blacks took great offence. So we've decided not to consult anyone with knowledge of Maori and New Zealand culture as we may cause offence to those performing acts of Maori and New Zealand culture. We are going to get a big enough beating on the field without making things worse by irritating them."

Wales in particular are fretting over what to do having upset New Zealand twice in recent years. In 2006, wrangling over whether the Welsh anthem should follow the Haka resulted in the Kiwis deciding to perform the it in complete privacy in their own dressing rooms (although TV crews and media persons were actively invited to attend, record and subsequently broadcast the private performance).

More controversy and tears followed in 2008 when Wales famously refused to back down from the Haka and stood their ground for nearly a minute after the All Blacks finished. The aggressive response to the war dance led All Black Manu Nonu to famously say that: "What the Welsh did wound us up... it was really hard (to accept). The Haka is a war dance. If you're going to stand there like that then in the past people would have charged, but it's a rugby match and you can't do that."

Nonu was never able to establish the conflict between performing a war dance on a rugby field and there being no place for aggressive behaviour on a rugby field.

One Home Union is considering issuing their players with caps so that they can be doffed to the Kiwis upon the Haka's conclusion. Another Union is debating whether to demand, in a kindly fashion, the All Blacks do their Haka again as it is 'so wonderful'.

Matters have been further complicated by research of the history books. Scotland's Andrew Raines, trying to help the Scottish Rugby Union with their intended response has been shocked by the finding of his research.

"I assumed that the tradition and heritage of the Haka, in relation to the All Blacks was long and illustrious," said Raines. "However, it seems it was only in 1987, under Wayne Shelford, the All Blacks started performing it before each Test match. Before that it tended to be done only for away matches and, generally, purely for the benefit of the crowd. Some All Blacks' tours saw no Hakas performed at all. And those that did, such as the one I saw on Youtube of the 1973 Haka, well, the less said about that the better. Also, in 1989, when several teams in Wales and Ireland turned away from the Haka or simply stayed in their own 22, no fuss was made up about it at all. It seems, as far as my limited research shows, that offence starting being taken by the Kiwis for all manners of perceived slights and indiscretions not long after commercial interests became entwined with the All Blacks. It isn't, apparently, demeaning to use the sacred war dance in extensive advertising campaigns.

"It's a bit like when you have a dinner guest who always tells the same story each time he comes for dinner," said Raines. "You never know whether to laugh, cry, ignore it or tell him to shut up."

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