It seems that Matt Dawson has ensured that should England end up facing the All Blacks during the tournament, the affair will be far more emotionally charged than it might otherwise have been.
In an online ad for a clothing firm, he suggests that English fans should do a mix of the haka with the macarena to counter the New Zealand ritual – at best a ridiculous suggestion, at worst it’s offensive and disrespectful. Whilst I don’t doubt that the marketing team thought it would be a bit of a laugh and obviously Dawson agrees, I think it misses its mark by a country mile.
The haka is something that rugby, not just people from New Zealand, should be proud of – it’s a nod to their cultural heritage and is generally observed with respect by the opponents. There are a number of other nations at the World Cup that have a similar challenge laid down by the players before the start of a match, so why are the Kiwis singled out? Of course, because they represent the biggest challenge.
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It has been said that the All Blacks use the haka as a tool to psychologically take the lead on their opponents, but surely that’s the point? If they come up against the Samoans, Fijians or the Tongans, then each team will perform their challenge to one another – and what a great spectacle it is.
Those nations that do not have an orchestrated reply must either leave their counter for the game or give a gesture of defiance. There are times that this has spilled over and measures have been brought in to ensure there is no repeat of the famous 1997 tussle between Richard Cockerill and his opposite number Norman Hewitt, these include the opposing team staying on their side of the half-way line whilst still watching the performance and not turning their backs by being in a huddle.
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More recent responses to gain a psychological edge include the French in the final of the 2011 World Cup aligning themselves into an arrowhead formation and striding meaningfully towards the All Blacks – the English under Clive Woodward would observe the haka stood in their tracksuits and once finished would calmly head to the touchline to disrobe to their game gear, taking their time to allow themselves to gain a psychological edge.
The Welsh had a stand-off with the All Blacks following the haka in 2008 where neither team would break their stare of their opposite numbers, leaving the match officials to usher the players to their starting positions. We’ve also seen and heard the Twickenham crowd on several occasions show their response with their rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Ultimately, the opponents need to tread a fine line in responding to the challenge, firstly to the haka and then to the All Blacks themselves. They cannot back down from this but need to be respectful. The fans and ex-players alike should do similar or we risk losing one of the great traditions of the game.