On Saturday afternoon, November 1, a sell-out crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago is going to witness one of the world’s greatest sporting traditions. The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team will perform a Haka, a ceremonial Maori dance, in front of the US Eagles. How the US Eagles respond to the Haka could provide an indication of how the match might go.
The All Blacks have performed a Haka before every game they’ve played over the last hundred plus years. It’s part of their tradition but some fans are beginning to argue that it provides an unfair advantage to the world’s best rugby team and that it should be discontinued.
The New Zealand All Blacks are the most successful national rugby team ever. They have won 76 percent of the games they have played, have a winning record against EVERY team they have ever played, and have finished in the top three of the seven rugby world cups played five times, winning two.
The current All Black rugby team has continued the tradition of excellence; recently having a 22-game unbeaten streak, the second best ever, behind the All Blacks of 1987-90 with their 23 consecutive games without a loss. Imagine the on-field dominance of the Yankees of the 1950’s except All Blacks domination of rugby has lasted 115 years.
Such domination of a global sport is particularly impressive when you consider that New Zealand’s entire population, at 4.5 million, is approximately 1 million less than the city of Atlanta, Georgia.
Rugby is the heart and soul of sport in New Zealand while the country is exceptionally proud of its Maori cultural heritage. Combining the two makes all the sense in the world and the Haka has become a revered part of the All Blacks identity.
Ironically, the Haka most often done by the All Blacks is not a challenge but a dance that celebrates escape from death and life. The “Ka Mate” dance celebrates a Maori chief’s life being spared by another Maori chief. The dance was performed to thank the chief for sparing his life.
While the dance celebrated life, opposing teams have not been as kindly disposed toward it. Tradition calls for opposing teams to stand passively at halfway watching as the All Blacks use the Haka to motivate themselves.
Taking the dance as a brazen challenge various teams and individual players have chosen to respond in different ways. In 1989, the entire Irish team advanced toward the All Blacks and Irish captain Willie Andersen stood nose to nose with Buck Shelford. The All Blacks won.
In 2007 English hooker Richard Cockerill, in his international debut, singled out his opposite number and did the same thing. The All Blacks won.
English fans have chosen to sing their rugby anthem “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to drown out the chants of the Haka. England has only beaten the All Blacks once in fourteen tests since 2003.
One of the most famous confrontations was between the Welsh rugby team and the All Blacks. In 2008 upon completion of the Haka, the Welsh stood their ground and stared down the All Blacks, refusing to break from the line until the All Blacks broke. Neither team moved until the referee and his assistants forced them too. The awkward standoff lasted for more than a minute and the Welsh crowd was apoplectic. The All Blacks won.
The players who have played rugby at the highest level wouldn’t have it any other way.
David Egerton, a former England international and British Lion, sees the Haka as a challenge that gives the All Blacks a “…massive advantage [that] then marks a challenge and teams constantly invent responses to it” Egerton added “The most important thing about the Haka is that the opposition should respect it. [It’s] one of Rugbys core values! It is a challenge thrown down by New Zealand and should be accepted with dignity in the manor given.”
Richard J. Hill, a scrum-half, and another former England international, has a similar respect for the All Black Haka he faced twice in his career. Hill points out that Hakas performed by other Pacific Island countries with a similar Maori culture, like Tonga and Samoa provide no advantage to those teams but “…when the All Blacks do it, teams for some reason, get very emotional and spend much of their preparation time, discussing how they are going to deal with it.”
Hill added “When I played in the 1991 World Cup against New Zealand we spent so much time discussing and arguing as a team how we should deal with it. In the end the captain Will Carling decided that we should not look at them performing the Haka but get into a huddle and look at each other. We still lost!”
“The fact that NZ do the Haka, is not the reason why they win…they are just the best team in the World and that is why they win.”
How will the USA respond to the Haka on Saturday? Hopefully they’ll focus on the game, and not the Haka. Playing the New Zealand All Blacks will be challenge enough!