The haka has been a controversial topic throughout its history, from issues surrounding its use in apartheid South Africa to the decision to transition from the traditional Ka Mate to the custom made Kapo O Pango in 2005.
In 2011 a poll of Australia suggested 70% of the public believed it should be banned. Recently Irish journalist Ewan McKenna reopened the controversial debate, stating, “the haka gives New Zealand an unfair advantage and needs to stop.”
McKenna accused World Rugby of “pandering to the dance,” before suggesting, “that’s unfortunate as New Zealand are justifiably big-headed enough without a massaging of their already massive egos.”
Such criticism is tired and unnecessary. The haka is a central element of Maori culture, and that the All Blacks so proudly champion it should be recognised as a positive. Australians would be wiser to question the status of Aboriginal culture in their own society before attacking the All Blacks.
Likewise, the notion the haka gives the All Blacks “an unfair advantage” is silly. The All Blacks win rugby games because of their ability, conditioning and commitment, not the haka. You hear few complaints about the Tongans, Fijians or Samoans performing their own pre match rituals.
Nevertheless, the haka is not immune to criticism, and its professionalisation and commercialisation over the last decade or so is justifiably controversial.
Peter Love, an activitist in charge of an organisation protecting Maori reserves, has previously stated: “I’m concerned our Maori culture is being abused by the overuse and inappropriateness of the haka when it is performed outside special occasions.
“The haka in our culture is something which is regarded as special and should not be bastardised by sport.”
In recent years the haka has cropped up on Russian TV, as well as advertisements for a German insurance company, Fiat and a television commercial for a New Zealand bakery featuring gingerbread men performing the ritual. Its ubiquitous position in popular culture clearly runs contrary to ‘special’ status that the All Blacks supposedly confer upon it.
Indeed, the physical motion of the Haka has changed significantly in the last three decades. Not until the inaugural World Cup in New Zealand was the haka danced by the All Blacks before a home Test.
Since then the performance has become increasingly aggressive. Today’s synchronised arrowhead formation bears no resemblance to the half hearted efforts of Sean Fitzpatrick and co. in 1987.
Indeed, in 2005 the All Blacks had a new Haka, Kapo O Pango, composed. This is clearly not a traditional war dance, and initially contained a controversial throat slitting gesture, which was reviewed and then subsequently altered.
Ultimately, the Haka is a fantastic spectacle, and is great for the game. Perhaps my defining World Cup memory is watching France, clad in all white and led by the indomitable Thierry Dusautoir, form an arrowhead formation and challenge the haka in the 2011 final. Rugby has rarely seen such an incredible, emotionally charged moment.
Opposition sides should be allowed to challenge the haka, as long as they stay respectful and do not demean its content. France in 2011 was the perfect blueprint. The haka is not untouchable, but we should cherish its place in our sport.
Written by Joe Ronan