Time for Ireland to face the incredible haka again and see if they can hack it
Ireland captain Willie Anderson and his men famously face up to New Zealand captain Wayne Shelford as the All Blacks preform the haka when the countries met in 1989. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Every so often, the New Zealand rugby team journeys to the upper reaches of the globe just to confirm there is nowhere to match the islands on the Tasman Sea. They visit the sights, win a few international matches on frosty afternoons, and fascinate and frighten all and sundry by performing the most frightening dance ever seen in public – at least since Brian Cowen led the last Fianna Fáil cabinet in a frenzied version of the Hucklebuck during the emotional hours of the annual convention.
It has become commonplace to question whether it is fair to allow the best rugby nation on earth to pretty much own the day before it even begins by issuing all kinds of dark promises and screams in the direction of their opponents. Does the haka give the All Blacks an advantage they hardly need? Does it promote mutual respect? Should white New Zealanders really be performing it?
Who gives a toss? The haka is brilliant.
Most fans know that when they buy a ticket to watch their team play against the All-Blacks, they will lose; the deal is you get to see the supreme innovators in rugby at their best and a vivid depiction of precisely where your own team stands in the pecking order. On top of that, you get to sit back and enjoy one of the last examples of a sport trusting the teams alone to create the atmosphere.
Even amidst the glare of advertising and floodlights of the modern amphitheatre, the haka continues to evoke primal images and the notion that these rugby players are the descendants of some pretty fearsome cats.
It is surprising how formal the English translations of the haka verses prove to be, but everyone watching understands it is not so much what is being said as how it is being said. The message is entirely visual, emotive and unmistakable: we are bigger than you, we are tougher than you and you are lucky it’s just rugby we are playing here and you’re gonna get your ass kicked.
The performance predates the fabled New Zealand Originals tour of 1905 and is such an ingrained part of their rugby culture the idea of abandoning it is like suggesting they should no longer wear black or should pick a useless number eight. On ordinary days, the haka is merely ominous but at its best – depending on the challenge and the attitude of the crowd – it is genuinely chilling.
So the big debate for opposing teams is how best to respond to the challenge of the haka. What do you do when you have to stand in front of 15 stacked and pumped New Zealanders marching towards you in unison, screaming blue murder in an exotic tongue, tongues thrust out, eyes bulging and intent on wiping you off the face of the earth? The common response has been for other teams/countries to stand shoulder to shoulder and try not to look scared as ****. The problem is there isn’t much else they can do.
Willie Anderson’s 1989 team wrote themselves into rugby history when they played Buck Shelford’s visiting New Zealand team that autumn and famously slow-marched into the teeth of the fury so that by the end Buck and Big Willie were getting up close and personal. It was a wonderfully exciting moment . . . if only because it was so unexpected. Perhaps the most thrilling part of it was it was clearly thought out and rehearsed – not virtues associated with Irish teams of that time.