Remedial Rugby: The Haka!
Every sport has an athlete or team that’s so good that it almost isn’t fair on everyone else. The 100 meters has Usain Bolt, men’s swimming has possible merman Michael Phelps and the sport of rugby union has the All Blacks.
The All Blacks are the best rugby players that Middle-Eart…I mean, New Zealand can throw at the rest of the world and being the best at rugby in New Zealand is like being the least recognizable Baldwin brother. There’s some stiff competition. Unlike most southern hemisphere countries, where rugby has a rough time seducing young athletes from the slutty temptress that is soccer, rugby is New Zealand’s most popular sport. That crucible of internal competition is part of the reason why the All Blacks became the first International team to pull off a perfect season last year. Also, the fact that they get to kick off every game with a terrifying war-dance can’t hurt.
Yes, like many sports, New Zealand rugby has pre-game entertainment but the All Blacks look at NFL cheerleaders and think “It’s ok I guess but needs more abject bloodlust!” Instead of young, flexible women in short skirts, imagine 15 huge men with questionable impulse control. And instead of upbeat cheers and somersaults, imagine manic yelling, self-harm and just generally looking like they’re trying to summon the ancient Maori god of compound fractures.
I give you the Haka. The All Blacks’ way of saying to the world “We’re so good at this sport that we have time to practice elaborate choreography.”
The Haka is a traditional Maori war chant used as a challenge to enemies before battle. The Maori people and culture are huge part of New Zealand rugby and anyone who’s ever seen Jonah Lomu can hazard a guess as to why. If scientists spent ten years and a billions of dollars genetically engineering the perfect rugby player then they would have wasted their time because Israel Dagg already exists.
The All Blacks’ Haka has changed from time to time over the years but the most comon and well known is the “Ka Mate” version seen above. Believe it or not there’s actually a more violent version, “Kapa o Pango,” which culminated in the entire team doing a slit-throat gesture at the opposition but it’s not really used any more. It was heavily criticized at the time and actually had to be done in the dressing room for some games instead of out on the pitch because it was considered too violent.
Too violent…for the sport of rugby.
The first verse of the Haka chant is actually pretty disappointing. It may sound like they’re saying “Tonight we dine on man-flesh!” But it actually it translates roughly as:
Puff out the chest.
Bend the knees
Let the hips follow
Stomp the feet as hard as you can!
So yeah, it’s actually just one of those songs that tells you all the dance moves. It’s basically the ancient Maori version of the “Cha Cha Slide.” The second verse however is where it gets good, telling the story of a famous Maori chief escaping his enemies thanks to the help of a local chief Te Whareangi (The Hairy One) who hid him in a food pit and kept him safe.
Tis death! ’tis death!
’Tis life! ’tis life!
This is the hairy man
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine
A step upward, another step upward!
A step upward, another… the Sun shines!
Which, when you think about it, is kind of an uplifting message. You know, if it wasn’t been screamed at you by 15 large men who are about to spend the next 80 minutes legally tackling you.
As well as the chanting there’s a lot of foot stamping, crotch thrusting and slapping the ever loving bejesus out of themselves. It’s the slapping which I find the most intimidating I think, because it says to the opposition “If this is how hard I’m willing to hit myself. Imagine what I’m going to do to you.” It’s actually a stroke of genius on their part. They’re constantly playing against teams that don’t speak English so they came up with this useful international symbol for “You’re not going to enjoy this next 80 minutes!”
Of course, the Haka is often, justifiably, criticized for giving the All Blacks an unfair advantage over other teams who just have to sit there and take it. It gets particularly old during the World Cup where they do this before every game. Challenging the Haka is a bit minefield though as the rules are pretty hazy depending on where you are.
Whatever you do, don’t try it in New Zealand. The French got fined during the 2011 World Cup for disrespecting the Haka and by “disrespecting” I mean “stood closer to it and held hands.”
There is a fine history of challenging the Haka however and a number of different ways you can go about it.
1. Oh God! It’s about to kick off!
So what do you do when the biggest, strongest players you have ever seen are doing an elaborate mime of what they plan to do to you once the game starts? If you answered “Go stand within striking distance of them” then you’re probably former Irish captain Willie Anderson.
When the All Blacks came to Ireland in 1989 Anderson decided that he’d had just about enough of this Kiwi crap and dragged his teammates arm in arm until he was standing right in front of Buck Shelford. And I literally mean “dragged,” the rest of his team clearly weren’t as keen on the idea of going nose to nose with the opposition until they absolutely had to so Willie ended up at the point of a giant V formation, close enough to catch the spittle from All Black’s screams.
It was a great moment for Irish rugby…literally a moment, as we ended up losing that game pretty badly.
2. Oh God! It’s really about to kick off now!
Speaking of dragging your team into a potential riot. When England lined up against the All Blacks in 1997, rookie hooker Richard Cockerill decided he needed to make his presence felt and clearly the best way to do this was to try and incite a pre-match brawl. The front row stood literally inches away and attempted to stare down the opposing hooker throughout the whole Haka. It got so heated that the ref had to intervene and remind them that they could do as much violence as they liked if they just waited five goddamn minutes for the game to start.
The world’s reaction was best summed up by Cockerill’s teammate and Captain Martin Johnson: “What the f*&* have you just done?.” England ended up being whupped 25-8.
3. Oh God! It has to kick off after this!
When New Zealand invaded Cardiff to face off against Wales in 2008 there was a rumor that the Welsh team had planned to challenge the Haka. That challenge turned out to be…a staring contest?
The Welsh team stood staring mutely at the All Blacks after the Haka was finished and then just stayed like that for two whole minutes. Neither team broke eye contact and the crowd cheered as they watched what was either the most intense staring contest in human history or the prelude the First Kiwi-Welsh War. The best part was when the referee tried to break it up, utterly failing to convince the Kiwis to let up, then awkwardly running across the pitch only to be soundly ignored by the Welsh as well. The Welsh got hammered 29-9. Noticing a pattern here?
4. It’s kicked off and it’s beautiful!
New Zealand isn’t the only country with a pre-match war dance, the other South Pacific nations like Fiji and Samoa have them as well. Ninety-nine percent of the time these countries are polite enough to go one at a time but every now and again we get sweet Haka on Haka action like when New Zealand faced off against Samoa in this year’s Junior World Cup. If you ever wondered what West Side Story would look like if it was acted out by 45 large, angry Polynesian men then wonder no more. This video looks like it’s going to be the first ever dance off with a bodycount. New Zealand ended up winning 48-12 so if we’ve learned anything from this then maybe it’s that it’s just better to let these guys get on with it and not piss them off.
Richy Craven is a sophisticated machine for turning whiskey into regrettable life-choices. You can check out more of his stuff over at Cracked, A Series of Terrible Decisions or, if you like mediocre jokes about Batman and Game of Thrones, follow him on Twitter.