Haka: Tradition must be abused, or at least ignored

‘Why should a side coming to Ireland get the first applause by doing a dance’

Ringa pakia. The placebo effect can be a powerful psychological weapon. How should Ireland respond to a people who believe they are possessed by immortal spirits? The Thomond Park silence rarely fails to intimidate. Ignore it like David Campese while entertaining the mob with party tricks down the other end.

Or see how the 1996 Wallabies simply continued their warm-up.

“It’s about taking control back,” said Brian O’Driscoll, well positioned to offer an option having stared it down 14 times.

“Including both anthems and then the haka, it is a long time to be standing around, particularly if you are respecting it by watching them.


“I absolutely think there should be a three or four minute period afterwards where teams are allowed do a second warm-up.

“It shouldn’t be when they are ready to play, it should be when both sides are ready to play.”

Or just go all Willie Anderson on them.

“The idea was, psychologically, why should a side coming to Ireland to play on Lansdowne road, our pitch, why should they get the first applause by doing a dance,” Anderson said years after his manic roar in 1989.

“So we just tried to turn it around.”

Option Z: throw a blade of grass at them. This tactic, while not foolproof, after walking up with your youngest teammate, has been known to sucker their enraged captain and hooker into spear-tackling you in the opening seconds (Note: South African citing commissioners are rarely fooled by this trick).

Johnny Sexton, when asked the other day if the haka gives New Zealand an unfair advantage, made a valid point.

“We don’t get to sing our other anthem when we play away from home so there is that question obviously.

“I think it is one of the great things in rugby - facing it is a challenge. Yeah, I think it is brilliant.”

Maybe Greg Feek, Joe, Jared Payne and Joey Carbery could do their own war dance after the always embarrassing Ireland's Call. Maybe Sexton's right; just belt out Amhrán na bhFiann in Chicago this Saturday (Feck it, let the Ulster boys sing God Save the Queen as well).

That’s currently something Irish rugby sides are denied despite the All Blacks being allowed an anthem and cultural dance, where they convince themselves that ancestral Maori warriors, drifting between this life and the next, are entering their bodies.


“We call on those that have gone before us,” Tiki Edwards, NZRU Maori Rugby Development Manager, told the42.ie. “Those ancestors that are no longer with us, we call on their spirit to come to us.”

It remains unclear if the act of self possession is legal in the state of Illinois.

Really the haka is bulls**t. It gives New Zealand an unfair advantage.

They admit as much. It gets them into a “frenzied state” to be able to kill someone. They admit this too.

It also panders to tradition. It is a primary example of why rugby remains stranded in its own blissfully elitist realm. Global game?


Almost everyone loves it though. Criticise this sacred activity, or any All Black behaviour, and Makeatutara shall place a hex upon your soul that will see you helping Sisyphus with that bloody rock.

O'Driscoll's twitter handle took a heavy pounding this summer after he dared question the non-citing of Owen Franks despite a tickling of Kane Douglas's eyes right in front of referee Romain Poite.

Ka mate, Ka mate - It is death, it is death - was composed in the early 19th century by Te Rauparaha. Basically it’s a celebration of life over death after the Maori chieftain avoided his enemies.

Come 2005 a new a throat slitting action was first delivered by Tana Umaga’s ferocity incarnate Kapa O Pango.

Derek Llardelli, the composer, explained the movement as a Maori symbol of "drawing vital energy into the heart and lungs."

Strange then that it looks awfully like slicing one’s own throat.

So, New Zealand rugby not only has its own brand name, they get to perform one of two hakas after their national anthem. The Fijians, Samoans and Tongas also have war dances but their young players want to be spotted in teenage trials so they can be transported to Auckland or Wellington, Christchurch or Sydney, even English and French clubs, where they can be naturalised into other nations - all part of the global game, where these boys get to give their families a better life (See Bundee Aki out west).

Anyway, Nigel Starmer-Smith - the famed rugby commentator capped seven times for England - won’t have anyone disrespecting the haka.

Especially little Irish boys.

At the 2009 Junior World Cup, an Ireland under-20s side that included Jack McGrath, Conor Murray, Dave Kearney, Rhys Ruddock, Ian Madigan, Matt Healy and the late Nevin Spence decided to take the lead of their ancestors by walking up on Aaron Cruden's New Zealand.

Starmer-Smith got terribly annoyed by Ireland accepting the challenge and approaching this threatening behaviour. Just like Willie Anderson did in ‘89. Like Thierry Dusautoir’s French did before the 2011 World Cup final. And 2007 in Cardiff.

In 'The Battle' Paul O'Connell mentions a quote by Cus D'Amato, via Jerry Flannery, about controlling the fear. "The night before the fight, you won't sleep," said Mike Tyson's trainer. "Don't worry, the other guy didn't either. You'll go to the weigh-in, he'll look much bigger than you and calmer, like ice, but he's burning up with fear inside. Your imagination is going to credit him with abilities he doesn't have.

“Remember, motion relieves tension...”

That’s the clear advantage the All Blacks wield over their opponents.

Their game begins with the haka while opponents are rooted to the spot.

In 2009, McGrath and the others walked up. The match officials were pushing the Irish lads back yet they are the ones being roared at, by a regimented gang of Kiwi boys, re-enacting the scene before bloody murder.

"Why Ireland have to be quite so confrontational I don't know," said Nigel on comms as a ridiculously overwrought version ended with Zach Guildford belting Dave O'Callaghan's chest. The Munster flanker did not react to being assaulted.

“It’s a tradition I’ve always respected. I don’t quite understand Ireland’s thinking on that one. It was clearly forethought that they would walk up and challenge. Seems to me that’s rather discourteous.”

Not two years earlier France had taken the exact same stance in the World Cup quarter-final. And won. Invincibles beheaded. Why wouldn’t another team repeat such actions?

But Nigel, lost in a forest of hubris, had his microphone, “Foolhardy, ungracious and not worthy. Irritating actually. Do they just want to cause controversy or what? I don’t know.”

In 2006 Wales denied New Zealand the last say before kick-off at the Millennium stadium by informing them, weeks in advance, that they would sing their stunning national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, after and not before the haka.

The All Blacks pulled a hissy-fit and performed ka mate in “the sheds.”

"At the end of the day this is a team that makes its own decisions, it's not going to be bullied around by anybody, especially over something as dear to them as the haka," said Steve Hansen, then assistant but now All Black coach.

“It’s disappointing but we’re comfortable with our decision because we don’t believe the haka should be played around with. Doing it between two national anthems is a cop-out. It’s trying to interfere with tradition and the culture of the team and we weren’t prepared to put up with it.”

Hansen genuinely believed what he said. We are visiting your country, your city, your stadium but you will not tell us how to behave.

"Pompous," was how Graham Price, the legendary Welsh prop, described their indoor tongue-licking air chant.

The game finished 45-10.

Graham Henry was over helping Leinster in August. He was asked about O'Driscoll's head being driven into the ground by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu.

“Oh God,” the former All Black coach responded.

Sorry Ted, we are who we are.

“No, I haven’t changed my opinion. It wasn’t intentional, it was one of those things that happen in a game, it was disappointing that it happened. But those things happen sometimes in sport, unintentionally.

“We probably need to move on.”

One rule for them, another for everybody else. The All Blacks think they are better than everyone else - granted, they are - so they should be treated as special cases.

Just last week Wallaby coach Michael Cheika was asked to talk about Nigel Owens and the TMO controversially disallowing an Australian try, as the All Black winning run was stretched to a record 18 matches.

“Obviously I can’t say anything because they got you by the throat,” said Cheika.

“I don’t think they want our comment. They dressed us up as clowns. Front of the paper, bro. I don’t think they respect our comment so we won’t make one.”

Cross ditch relations going well. Cheika understands the rules of confrontation better than most. He knows how to climb out from under the rock of mediocrity, and knows if Ireland are to ever conquer these supposedly invincible, mythical, unsmiling giants in the black jersey then tradition must be abused, or at least ignored. Because tradition is another glorious defeat for Ireland.

History teaches us that ad nauseam.

The French refused this situation when facing the haka. A bunch of young Irish men did too.

Make them burst a blood vessel.

Willie Anderson was a little foolhardy in '89, The initial plan was just to stand and stare, as vice captain David Irwin remembers in the Tom English book 'No Borders': "We decided we'd line up in front of it and just stand there. That was the plan. We'd stare them down. I was beside Willie when we lined up. The crowd started to go ballistic and Willie got carried away."

Ireland were not equipped to live with those touring All Blacks but young supporters on the south terrace that November afternoon were transfixed by the electrifying moment when Willie roared into Buck’s face.

“What’s he doing? He’s coming up!,” Buck Shelford’remembered years later. “Jesus man, get in there! Go for it.

“He came right up and was right in my face. I thought it was a great challenge,”

Irwin: “The IRFU said later that our advance on the haka was disgraceful and disrespectful.”

“Played really well that day,” Shelford smiled, “but they still lost. Ha Ha.”

23-6. Three tries to none. Amateurs against professionals. New Zealand had a massive head start on Ireland in that regard. Still haven’t caught up, even if Fiona Coghlan’s women in 2014 and James Ryan’s under-20s, just last summer, have beaten them at World Cups.

From the first day in New Zealand, on Clive Woodward’s utterly disastrous 2005 British and Irish Lions, the captain was met by “tattooed maori warriors whipping spears around his face.”

"Clive had spoken to a Maori elder and been given advice how best to face the haka," wrote O'Driscoll in 'The Test'. "We spread out in a half-moon shape, with me out front as the leader and the youngest member, Dwayne Peel, standing behind me. When the haka ends, I pull up some grass and throw it at them, as if pulling the ground from underneath their feet."

40 seconds later O’Driscoll is lying in tatters after having the ground pulled from underneath his feet by Umaga and Mealamu.

What followed was a PR disaster with the overriding information being the All Blacks won the series 3-0.

O’Driscoll has long since let it go. But why give them the added advantage of such a predatorily charged warm-up while the opposition are forced to stand rigidly by?

“The smart thing is to dilute it a small bit.”

If you had a do over would you abandon the grass throwing? “Nah, I kind of liked the idea behind it. I don’t think it had any bearing what happened 45 seconds later. I really don’t.”

Was Clive’s Maori elder from this world or the spirit realm?

“No idea.”

Edwards, our mortal warrior of this earthly plain, knows best: “It opens ourselves up so we can go to places we would not normally be able to go to. The haka is really about me getting myself into a state of frenzy to be able to go and face whatever challenges are in front of me. If it means facing the enemy and back 200 years ago it was hand to hand combat...It was either I kill him or he kills me...the Haka got you to that frenzied state.”

To kill someone. Great. Sounds fair. Of course the haka is ingrained in New Zealand life, as much as rugby is.

The placebo effect.

“I’m going to go to a place I’ve never been before. I’ll go through whatever it is in front of me to make sure I protect (my family). To make sure that they got a future. If I got to die to make that happen then I will. It takes you to another level, bro.”

Munster continue their rich tradition against touring New Zealand sides when the Maoris visit Thomond Park on November 11th. We know all about 1978. In '89 a young Peter Clohessy can be seen shouting "Fuck ye" after the haka. 2008 seemed like a properly informed approach: dance with them. It helped that Munster had four Kiwi cards in their deck, including All Black winger Doug Howlett, another being Rua Tipoki (who led the Maori haka against the Lions in 2005). And they had a wonderfully intimidating secret weapon. silence.

“It’s very hard as an outsider to understand their mentality and the Maori warrior instinct that comes from doing the haka,” O’Driscoll adds. “A spectacle for the world but it’s a very personal thing to them.

“I do think it has more of an impact on certain All Black players. Those positioned at the back must be there for a reason.”

Make them blink. Disrupt the alchemy required to drag the spirit of Tūmatauenga into their bodies.

“I didn’t actually know that,” Sexton laughed. “Maybe we can do the same when we are facing it!”

Happy Halloween.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent