Pride and blood bind the Maori All Blacks like no other team
Clash with the Lions will be as much about showcasing their culture as the rugby itself
Maori All Blacks perform the haka before facing Munster in November 2016. Photo: Getty Images
To some it generates a shiver down the spine, establishing a connection with the spiritual self easily overlooked these days. To others the word haka is enough to start an argument in an empty room. For those who do not know their iwi from their elbow, the traditional challenge to the British & Irish Lions has certainly mislaid the rarity value it once had.
As the tourists prepare to face the fiercely proud Maori All Blacks, this is a real shame. Respect sits at the heart of Maori tradition and should exist both ways. The fundamental concepts of manaakitanga – welcoming and respecting guests – and kaitiakitanga – guarding the natural environment – are hardly controversial beliefs. Those who simply fixate on what they perceive to be a war dance are missing a much bigger picture.
Listen, for example, to the Maori players and coaches for whom this particular fixture represents the high point of their careers. “My experience playing for the Maori is that rugby is secondary,” says Liam Messam, the All Black back-row. “It’s all about culture, identity and who you are as a person. What makes the Maori team different to any other is that we’re bound by blood.”
No danger of losing anything in translation there. Professional rugby is stuffed with people who purport to respect their jersey but the Lions should beware: the Maori take it to a different level. Their respective tribes – the aforementioned iwi – are even listed on the team sheet. Think ancient Scottish clans whose ancestral links count for rather more than what coloured kilt pattern they can wear. One in seven New Zealanders – almost 700,000 people – are descendants of the country’s indigenous population, whose formal relationship with the white European pakeha dates to the founding document of modern New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.
There was Maori rugby before the New Zealand Rugby Union was formed. Their coach, Colin Cooper, reckons they are doing considerable service to New Zealand society: “When you’re in the Maori team you are all Maori so there is already that connection. It’s been great to watch young men rise around that. They’re representing a lot of things but most importantly they’re influencing New Zealand youth. What you do, what you say, how you dress, how you play and act is really important. We put that responsibility on their shoulders more than another rugby team.”
So here as a question for all: is this powerful mana being slightly undermined by the haka’s increasingly frequent and overtly theatrical usage? For most neutrals there is one key debate: its timing. Everyone admires Maori traditions but how did the haka become quite so omnipotent, with the opposition not permitted so much as to twitch in response? The manner in which the French Under-20 side responded to their New Zealand counterparts’ haka the other day – refusing to budge afterwards until their opponents dispersed – has gone viral.
On the Lions tour, even the provincial sides have been performing their own hakas for the first time. No problem per se, except these are not Test matches. No anthems are being sung, denying the visiting team any kind of response. The haka, inconveniently, also appears to mean different things to different people. Frequently it is a show of respect but, as Messam concedes, that is not what is going through his mind seconds before kick-off.
“Back in the day they’d do a haka to get ready for battle, to prepare to die for the cause. We’re not going to that extreme but for me it’s about connecting with my mates either side of me. Rugby’s a gladiator sport. We’re making sure we’re ready to go out there because those guys on the other side of the halfway line are there to smash you as well.”
Check out some of the old All Black hakas from the 1970s and Messam’s acknowledgement “the haka’s changed a lot” is the understatement of the year. The apparent throat-slitting gesture used by the Blues in the week of the London Bridge atrocities was also untimely, although experts on the subject insist it has more to do with signifying the movement of breath from one side of the body to the other, not unlike deep yoga breathing.
“It’s a touchy subject,” says Messam. “Unfortunately from the Blues’ point of view the timing was a little bad because of what happened in London. But I know those Blues boys wouldn’t have meant anything by it. I’ve talked to [fullback]Jared Payne and it sounds like those Lions boys enjoy the haka. It is part of New Zealand, it’s our culture and history. Every high school in New Zealand does it. It’s just a shame people sometimes take it the wrong way.” There is no throat-slitting in the Maori All Blacks version.
In the youthful Damian McKenzie – a blond-haired Southlander whose mother has Maori roots – they have a fabulously bold attacking fly-half who feels right at home within this squad. “My Maori’s not that fluent but in this environment you learn more about the culture and the history,” he says. “It’s a special team to be a part of.”
His team-mates are almost hugging themselves with excitement as they wait to see how the Lions will subdue a player who was a ballboy when the Lions played Southland in 2005 and deliberately smiles before kicking for goal to help himself relax. “His speed is ridiculous,” says the full-back James Lowe, who is joining Leinster this summer. “He’s like a 5ft 4in version of Beauden Barrett.” His opposite number, Jonathan Sexton, can expect little respite from either opponent. “On Saturday night I’ll be trying to run over him, next year I’ll be trying to look after him,” Lowe says, jokingly.
There is no other team in the world, either way, who use the haka to convey who they are more fervently than the Maori. “The Lions have come from overseas and it doesn’t matter what provincial teams we come from,” Messam says. “You’re laying down a challenge to opponents who are here to take something away from you.” Best of luck to the Lions; they may well need it.