Kingsley Amis said the most depressing words in the English language were ‘Shall we go straight in?’ — meaning no pre-dinner drinks. But for many of us it’s: ‘Tonight is the folklore evening.’ At any holiday resort in the world this signals a bloke with a balalaika and plump ladies in national dress giving it large with some traditional and intermin-able dance. Time to head for the bar.
So let’s look at the ‘haka’, the preamble to any All Blacks rugby match, and now more or less any game on the current Lions tour. The Auckland Blues had knocked one up for their Lions game this week. It was called The Power of Many and had stuff about ancestors, challenges and the sea; all the ingredients of the Kiwis’ admirable myth-making. Sir Clive Woodward tried to do the same in New Zealand in 2005 with a specially commissioned Lions anthem called The Power of Four, but none of the Lions sang a word on that tour.
There is a lot of guff surrounding the haka. My rugby-loving parents told me it was a traditional New Zealand Maori welcome, though to my childish eyes it didn’t seem so welcoming. In 1905 the All Blacks began performing the ‘Ka Mate’ haka, with rather terrific lyrics: ‘I am Death. I am Life… this is the hairy man.’ But since 2005 they have used a new one, Kapa O Pango (Team in Black), composed for them after a copyright row over Ka Mate. This has pretty terrific lyrics too: ‘New Zealand is rumbling here/ The team in black is rumbling here.’ It ends with the long slow gesture which some say represents the drawing of air from the sky, but to me looks like throat-slitting.
Clearly the haka is one of the great sporting spectacles: mighty, magnificent and intimidating. Clearly, the All Blacks are perhaps the greatest team in the history of sport, and certainly a team whose rugby has outstripped the rest of the world.
But let’s get a bit of perspective. We don’t have to treat the haka with quite such awed respect. Or do we? When it was first performed in Cardiff in 1905, the Welsh crowd came back with Land of My Fathers. Seems the right idea to me.
Wilson Whineray, All Blacks captain from 1957 to 1965, told Radio 5’s Alastair Eykyn: ‘It wasn’t done very well in my day. We only had a couple of Maori boys in our side. It is certainly more vigorous now… but wher-ever we went people loved the haka.’
It lays down the gauntlet to the opposition. How do you deal with it? David Campese, the great Australian winger, used to wander off and practise his routines. That didn’t go down well. At Lansdowne Road in 1989, Ireland captain Willie Anderson linked arms with his team and advanced on the haka, ending up eye to eye with rival captain Wayne Shelford, who told him later: ‘Good on you — what an awesome challenge. You responded like you meant it.’
In the 2011 World Cup final the French moved towards the All Blacks in arrowhead formation, then fanned out. They had the better of the match, too, though it would have been a travesty had they won. But they were fined for their haka walk, which strikes me as sanctimonious humbug.
I love to watch the haka, but if the Lions chose to chat about line-out tactics, I wouldn’t mind. Millions would of course. Cultural bigwigs, Maori scholars and the like. But rugby is a game of the mind as well as the body. Should one team be allowed to pump themselves up unchallenged?
Highlight of the week was the commentator Darren Fletcher’s observation at the spectacular Champions League final that ‘Real Madrid play with a smile on their face.’ A funny thing to say about any team with Sergio Ramos in it. Or about any team since Brazil 1970 — and even they didn’t always smile.
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