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From cultural tradition to intimidation tactic: The inevitable modernisation of the haka

09 Oct | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
From cultural tradition to intimidation tactic: The inevitable modernisation of the haka

All of the tribal dances at this Rugby World Cup have been adapted to make them more imposing - so why are opponents unable to respond?

The result of Friday’s match between New Zealand and Tonga is little more than a foregone conclusion, with the tournament favourites aiming to secure top spot in Pool C against a side that have never beaten them.

Instead, it is before the game when spectators can expect to see a rather more fascinating duel.

The All Blacks’ pre-match ritual of performing the haka may be widely regarded as one of the most iconic sights in sport, but if previous encounters are anything to go by then it is their Polynesian cousins who could well ending up stealing the show.

It was during the haka at the 2003 World Cup when Tonga thrilled the watching world by simultaneously performing their own tribal dance, the Sipi Tau, while the two countries also provided another thrilling spectacle to start the 2011 tournament in style.

With two other Pacific Island nations in Samoa and Fiji also impressing crowds at this year’s World Cup with their own versions of the tradition, the mysterious and visceral nature of these dances continue to fascinate sports fans all around the world.

But what are the nuances that make each one unique? And if they have existed for so long, why do they still occasionally cause such controversy?nzl-hakaAs an integral part of Maori culture, the haka can be used for anything from welcoming guests to expressing grief.

Indeed, the Ka Mate version made famous by the All Blacks is a celebration of life over death and was composed by Te Rauparaha, the leader of the Ngati Toa tribe, after he had escaped his enemies.

Yet while its modern-day performers are quick to emphasise that it serves as a mark of respect to opponents, there can be no denyting that the intention is still very much to challenge their rivals.

The words may need translating, but the intimidating body language of stamping feet, pounding chests and pulling faces – the protruding tongue often exhibited by gurning players is a Maori gesture of defiance – all require no explanation.

Indeed, the haka was revitalised in 1987 by New Zealand captain Wayne Shelford, who insisted that all players perform the ritual in a more intense and coordinated fashion so as to maximise its power.

Samoan tradition, meanwhile, gave way to a desire to cause greater terror when they replaced the comparably placid Ma’ulu’ulu Moa with their Siva Tau in 1991, which hails the warrior-like qualities of their players.sam-sivatauLikewise with Fiji, who in 2012 decided the vigorous Bole would have a greater effect in preparing for the rigours of a rugby match than the Cibi, which they had been performing since 1939 when a tour to New Zealand inspired them to adopt their own response.

Yet when it comes to laying down the gauntlet to opponents, perhaps nothing quite compares to Tonga’s Sipi Tau.

Written specifically for the 1995 Rugby World Cup and beginning with a sea of pointing fingers, the words even contain barely-veiled threats to mow down loose forwards and show no humanity towards the backs.

With the oldest battle-cry of them all, even the much-vaunted All Blacks are not above giving their haka a modern twist having created the more contemporary Kapa O Pango in 2005 to only be used on special occasions.

Despite being free from historical connotations of war, it still drew widespread criticism for the throat-slitting gesture at its conclusion – although such a motion is commonly said to symbolise drawing breath from the sky and into the lungs.

With each dance constantly evolving in an attempt to gain an edge in the psychological battle of international rugby, the debate surrounding how far opposing teams can go by way of riposte continues.ton-sipitauThere have been many infamous responses over the years, with each employing a different tactic in an attempt to combat the spell of the haka.

In 1991, Australia’s David Campese chose to simply ignore it by kicking a ball around behind the posts on his own.

In 2008, meanwhile, Wales stood their ground, refusing to get into position for kick-off before their counterparts gave way first.

And in 2011, on the biggest stage of them all before the World Cup final, the French went even further by linking arms to form a human spearhead before striding forward to meet the challenge head on.

Yet their defiance was swiftly met by a £2,500 fine from the IRB for breaching a “cultural ritual protocol”, with rules put in place to prohibit sides from going within 10 metres of the halfway line while the other team is performing.

But are such restrictions fair?

Powerful symbols that awake the senses are all part of what makes top-level sport so captivating, and the various dances are just as much an element of international rugby as the fluttering flags and national anthems.fij-boleYet whereas both teams are given the chance to get their blood pumping before kick-off by belting out their anthem, during dances one is made to stand passive and silent in the face of the other trying to assert their dominance – all for fear of causing cultural offence.

Such restrictions make no sense – given it is not just the game of rugby that is built upon defending one’s territory and not cowering in the face of danger, but virtually every human culture that has stood the test of time.

Tribal dances provoke awe in audiences for the pure sporting theatre that they provide, as do the instinctive human responses that such rituals inspire.

The tournament may be about to end for Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but with New Zealand still set to face some familiar foes in the knock-out stages, stand by for the latest chapter in the ever-evolving story of the haka.

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