The Haka: Its meaning and history in World Rugby

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The 2019 World Cup in Japan will feature no fewer than four “hakas”, with Pacific Islanders Fiji, Samoa and Tonga also in the mix.

The day has finally arrived for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. To commemorate such a day, we shall look into the infamous dance routine known as the “haka”. The Haka was first performed by the New Zealand rugby team in 1888 and has become a key part of their identity.

The All Blacks return as the champions after having won the previous two editions of the World Cup. They are undoubtedly the biggest hurdle any team would face in the tournament.

New Zealand are well-known for their pre-match ritual which features a rather unusual choreography. However, they won’t be the only team to intimidate their opponents this year. Will we have another intense “haka” face-off?

What are the origins of the Haka?

The Haka is a traditional war cry and dance that is seen as a challenge from the Maori people. It describes the ancestors and events from the history of the tribe.

The Haka is performed by the All Blacks before every fixture and has become an iconic sight in world sport.

It is considered so highly as it is a celebratory expression of vitality and identity for the All Blacks.

Haka
The Haka involves large amounts of shouting, as well as the use of the arms and legs to intimidate the opponent.
Credit: Owen Humphreys /PA

According to Maori folklore, it was created by Tane-rore, the child of Sun God Tama-nui-to-ra and his wife, who is represented by the quivering hands that feature in the dance.

The war haka, or peruperu, was performed by Maori warriors before battle to intimidate enemies by demonstrating their fierceness and strength. However, today’s performances are mostly without weapons, known as haka taparahi.

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What do the words in the haka mean?

There are two versions – the traditional Ka Mate and the new Kapa O Pango. The Ka Mate was first performed in 1905 while the latter was a special tribute for the team that was introduced a century later.

The most recognisable haka for rugby fans is Ka Mate, which was composed by a Maori chieftain in 1820.

Haka – Ka mate, Ka mate

 

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How do other teams approach the haka?

National sides who receive the Haka have approached it in different ways on the pitch, with some causing controversy.

Traditionally, the team will stand opposite in one line, either with their arms around their teammates.

Ireland famously advanced towards the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road in 1989 until the teams’ skippers were eyeball-to-eyeball.

In 2011, France formed a flying-V and marched into the All Blacks’ half before the World Cup final. Unsurprisingly, it earned them a fine as punishment.

The haka is no stranger to controversy. The throat-slitting gesture sometimes included as part of the dance drew ire after a match against the British Lions. It came immediately after the London terror attacks when some of the victims had their throats slashed.

In 2006, the Welsh wanted it done between the anthems rather than before kick-off. As a result, the All Blacks later performed it in the dressing room.

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What about the other teams?

Samoa’s Haka – “Siva Tau”

Samoa’s haka is a declaration of superiority and a warning to opponents.

“Here I come completely prepared. My strength is at its peak. Make way and move aside,” would chant the Samoans.

The dance involves slapping the knees, motioning as if throwing a spear and culminates in a raised-forearm challenge to the opponent.

Tonga’s Haka – “Sipi Tau”

Tonga was once known as the “Friendly Islands” but their “Sipi Tau” war dance is anything but.

Closer in style to the haka, the “Sipi Tau” contains the warning “let the foreigner and sojourner beware. Today, destroyer of souls I am”.

But unlike the haka, which follows a set script, the words of the “Sipi Tau” can be changed to suit the occasion.

During the 2015 World Cup, some 54,000 fans at Newcastle United’s football ground were in for a treat. It was the match between Tonga and New Zealand.

World Cup rules dictated that Tonga, as the designated ‘Team A’ for the match, would go first and ‘Team B’ New Zealand could choose when to respond.

But Tonga had no sooner started than the All Blacks adopted their signature squat to launch their “Ka Mate” haka. The crowd erupted as the two South Pacific nations challenged each other to war and declared a haka face-off.

Fiji’s Haka – “Cibi” & “Bole”

The origins of the Fijian “Cibi” dance (pronounced thimbi) stretch back to brutal inter-island wars. Warriors from the Fiji kingdom of Bau once performed this to gird themselves for battle. The island’s rugby players then decided to start using it in 1939.

“Your defence is just waiting… to crumble when I prick it,” the Fiji players chanted, as they motion with imaginary spears.

When Fiji toured New Zealand, the island’s leader felt they should have something to counter the haka. That’s when its use started on the field. It was an auspicious idea as Fiji came back undefeated from the tour.

The “Cibi” dance was seen as more of a celebration than preparation for battle. As a result, they came up with the more aggressive “Bole” dance in 2012.

Advancing towards the opponent, beating their chests and climaxing with a fierce jump in the air, the words of the dance threaten to “uproot” enemies.

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