Since 1769, when Captain James Cook first set foot in New Zealand and was met by a Maori war party, the haka has unsettled and aggravated the British. Nearly every November, when New Zealand’s rugby team makes its end-of-year European tour, those tensions are refuelled by the perennial British call for a ban on one of sport’s great rituals – the All Blacks’ pre-match haka.
It’s not surprising that a war dance should provoke such strong reactions. Performed by the All Blacks for more than a century, the haka – a fearsome display of chest beating traditionally performed by Maori warriors – is one of rugby’s most famous spectacles, considered a must-see for fans worldwide.
Unless you inhabit certain pockets of the British media, that is. In a column in the Sunday Times last week, Welsh journalist Stephen Jones called for the haka to be scrapped, describing it as an “instrument of the worst kind of sporting arrogance”. The haka, he griped, unfairly allowed the All Blacks to intimidate their opponents, who were given no option by the sport’s administrators but to meekly withstand the aggression.
While Jones’s characterisation of the All Blacks’ huffy exceptionalism angered their supporters, a minority of New Zealanders quietly nodded in agreement. Over the past decade, the wholesale adoption of the ritual by haka-happy athletes and fans, enthusiastically seizing on a new and energetic expression of biculturalism, has led to a surfeit of performances at sporting events. There are complaints of “haka fatigue”.
The haka has been adopted as a pre-game ritual by the silky short-wearing national basketball side, and wheelchair rugby team. The swim team has its own version, incorporating swimming strokes. Haka has featured in performances by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Perhaps most irritating to foreigners has been the haka’s evolution into an impromptu form of celebration. The moment of “peak haka” was reached at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games four years ago, when New Zealanders were accused of overdoing it following an impassioned poolside war cry to celebrate a bronze medal. Things were noticeably ratcheted back in Delhi this year in response. The moment of giddy self-infatuation seemed passed, and with it came a realisation that what played as a proud expression of postcolonial identity at home could be read as simply obnoxious abroad.
But understanding goes both ways. Maori sports broadcaster Te Arahi Maipi attributes ongoing objections to the haka to a misunderstanding of its significance to New Zealanders, and draws a parallel he hopes might place it in context. “It carries the same meaning for us as their anthems do for them,” he says, pointing to the way performances of the New Zealand anthem are generally wretched, mumbled affairs compared with the lusty efforts of the British. “When the haka begins, though, that’s when the passion comes out. It’s how we express pride in who we are.”