TJ Perenara leads 'Kapa o Pango' prior to the Rugby World Cup 2019 Group B game between New Zealand and South Africa on September 21, 2019 in Yokohama, Japan. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

A Rugby World Cup lesson: Disrespect the haka at your own peril

On Saturday, South African fans sang loudly over the top of the All Blacks’ haka in the opening round of the Rugby World Cup. Opposing sides and crowds can do what they want, writes Louisa Tipene Opetaia, but they should heed the lessons of the past.

Four years of build-ups culminated in the highly anticipated event we had all been waiting for. On a brisk autumn night in Yokohama, Japan, the mighty All Blacks faced off against our old foes the Springboks from South Africa in the opening round of the Rugby World Cup.

The atmosphere was electric and rival players on the field and fans in the stands were pumped for what was sure to be an epic showdown.

The emotional anthems were belted out by both teams and finally the moment every All Blacks fan looks forward to – the haka!

All eyes were on TJ Perenara, including the camera crew who didn’t get the memo that the All Blacks were changing it up. We heard the command, ‘Kia rite’, get ready, but TJ’s lips weren’t moving. The All Blacks skipper Kieran Read was leading his troops: ‘Kia whakawhenua au i ahau !’ Let me be one with the land. ‘Hi, aue, hi!”

Read made his way from within the ranks to take up his position at the front of the triangle. Perenara took over the chant and ‘Kapa o Pango’ rang out for the 68,000 in attendance and the massive global audience tuned in from around the world.

A section of supporters did their best to drown out the war cry, chanting ‘Olé, olé, olé’. It was barely audible on the television broadcast but the recognition left me perplexed. A Spanish song associated with bullfighting and football? Why would South African fans sing that? Was it even South African fans or another rowdy bunch?

At the end of the haka the camera zoomed in on the smiling face of South African back-rower Francois Louw and I knew that we had the game won. Even before the first touch of the ball.

I’ve seen it before.

As the opposing team and fan base, you can do whatever you like, but history tells us you disrespect the haka at your own peril.

This isn’t new. Other teams and other fans have tried to undermine the power of the haka. Wallabies fans sing ‘Waltzing Matilda’, English fans sing ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. Attempts by the opposition and their fans to trample our mana only serves to fire our players up even more. When we perceive our challenge is disrespected we take that energy and add it to our own mana.

There is much debate about the psychological advantage the All Blacks get from performing haka before a game. Opposition teams over the years have come up with various ways to counter the ritual. Mostly they silently endure it, looking passive and uncomfortable.

In the 1991 World Cup, Australia’s David Campese chose to ignore the haka, famously wandering off from the line-up to kick a ball until it was over. He faced the haka 29 times in his career. When asked last year if the haka should still be allowed in the World Cup he replied: “Of course, it’s part of the game.”

In 1996 at Athletic Park in Wellington, the Wallabies did their warm-up drills during the All Blacks’ haka and then endured a hefty 43-6 defeat.

In 1997 at Old Trafford, the English team advanced forward to meet the challenge head-on. English hooker Richard Cockerill sought out Norm Hewitt and went nose-to-nose with him mid-haka, forcing the referee to get in between them. English captain Martin Johnson asked him immediately afterwards, “What the fuck have you done?” A fired-up All Blacks won the game 25-8.

Brian O’Driscoll captained the 2005 British and Irish Lions Tour and says he was trying to pay respect to the haka by picking up grass and throwing it to the wind to signify his acceptance of the challenge. I’m not saying the All Blacks sought immediate retribution for his actions, but within minutes he was dumped on that same grass in a controversial tackle that ended his tour.

In 2011 at the Rugby World Cup final in New Zealand, our French opponents in an act of passive resistance linked hands and walked quietly to meet the challenge. Consequently, France was fined by the IRB for breaching a regulation on how the haka should be faced. Watching the replay now, it was a show of solidarity and respect. Even at the time, few in the rugby community or media wanted to see the French sanctioned.

What this history reminds us is that the haka evokes powerful mana. The words when translated don’t seem like much on paper, but when the breath of life (hā) is ignited (kā), the result is an energy that elicits a visceral reaction. When opposing forces try to counter the haka by reacting to it, whether by ignoring it, confronting it or singing right over the top of it, the mana becomes even more powerful.

The All Blacks bow to Japanese supporters after the final whistle of the Rugby World Cup 2019 Group B game between New Zealand and South Africa. Photo: Kaz Photography/Getty Images)

Back to the present day, and while the All Blacks’ first haka at the 2019 Rugby World Cup was greeted by Francois Louw’s big grin, there wasn’t a Springbok smile in sight by the final whistle. New Zealand were victorious 23-13.

In a fitting final gesture, the All Blacks stood in a line and bowed to the crowd before leaving the field last Saturday, as is the custom of the Japanese host nation (one they’ve practised in Japan before). All Blacks captain Kieran Read said: “It’s really important for us to connect as much as we can with the Japanese people. We know that they love us as All Blacks, but we need to show a bit of love back to them.”

While we can’t control the reaction our haka gets from opposing teams or fans, we can make every effort to show respect to others.

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