Pride and posturing

by The Listener / 24 September, 2015
Distinguished English sports columnist Frank Keating called it grotesque and tiresomely irksome – “a charmless, eye-rolling, tongue-squirming dance”.
All Blacks Haka
Photo/Getty Images

Distinguished English sports columnist Frank Keating called it grotesque and tiresomely irksome – “a charmless, eye-rolling, tongue-squirming dance”. He was, of course, writing about the haka. That was in 2008, and even then Keating was saying it was well past its use-by date. Were he still alive today (he died in 2013), the veteran journalist would no doubt have been searching his thesaurus for even more splenetic language to express his irritation with the ritual that has marked the start of All Blacks test matches since the 1880s.

The haka enthrals and annoys in equal measure. Many spectators love its drama and spectacle, and regard it as a unique and essential part of the All Blacks package. On the other hand, rugby writers from other countries habitually complain that the haka gives the All Blacks an unfair psychological advantage.

Certainly, part of its purpose is to intimidate, and its inescapable aura of menace is enhanced by the black of the New Zealand uniform. Opposing teams have devised various strategies to counter the haka, from ignoring it – as in 1996 at Athletic Park, when the Wallabies feigned nonchalance as they occupied themselves with a warm-up drill – to meeting it head-on with a gloweringly confrontational approach of their own, as the Irish did in 1989 when they advanced on the All Blacks in a menacing V-formation and ended up almost within touching distance.

The latter approach, although provocative, is considered the more respectful one, because it recognises the supposed power of the haka and responds in kind. In rugby folklore, ignoring the haka is a calculated insult that demands utu. It may be entirely coincidental, but the Australians lost that 1996 match 43-6.

One action potentially even more inflammatory than ignoring the haka is to mock it, so there was a sharp intake of breath across the rugby world when, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup, a British clothing company released a video showing men in English colours performing a Macarena-type parody of the haka – the “hakarena” – led by former England halfback Matt Dawson.

Three All Blacks front-rowers, prodded with leading questions by British sports journalists eager to escalate the hakarena to the status of an international incident, wisely refused to be outraged. Keven Mealamu thought the video was “quite funny”; Charlie Faumuina said he wasn’t fussed. Only former Maori Party co-leader Sir Pita Sharples rose to the bait, condemning the video as shameful and insulting. Critics in the international sporting media, who portray New Zealand as altogether too precious when it comes to the haka, would have been delighted with his response.

Which brings us back to Keating, who wrote in 2008 that the fun had gone out of the haka. He lamented that it had become an “over-rehearsed, over-choreographed production number with a nasty, malignant edge to it”. Could he have been right?

On the grounds of fairness alone, Keating had a point. Even if the haka fails to intimidate opponents, it can be seen as conferring an advantage on the All Blacks by getting them fired up immediately before kick-off. No other team is granted that privilege.

It may also be true that the novelty value of the haka is waning. Rugby test matches, once relatively rare and eagerly anticipated events between rugby-playing nations separated by vast distances, are now routinely seen regularly and instantaneously around the world. Familiarity can only dull the haka’s mystique. It risks becoming a cliché, performed out of habit because crowds have come to expect it.

Outside rugby, it has become a cliché already, degraded and devalued by overuse. Whatever cultural power the haka might have once had has been eroded by its use as a default gesture for every situation in which New Zealanders feel the urge to collectively express themselves, whether in celebration, defiance, anger or grief.

And despite protestations to the contrary, there remains the haka’s undeniable association with violence and intimidation. In a society cursed with appalling rates of male brutality, disproportionate levels of which involve Maori, the question has to be asked: do we really want to legitimise hyper-aggressive masculine posturing under the guise of pride in our cultural heritage?

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