It’s Rugby Championship time in the southern hemisphere, and perhaps time again to reflect on the revered Haka. After the All Blacks lost to France in the gut-wrenching 2007 World Cup quarter-final, and after several misfires and decidedly wobbly starts, I wrote on this blog how nzedge.com producer Brian Sweeney was advocating for the haka to be performed in the instances of victory, as a celebration of winning; and a challenge delivered for the next occasion on the battlefield of rugby. I said then that I had the feeling that performing it before the game was a distraction and potentially de-energizing. Since then, under Richie McCaw, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and cohorts, the All Blacks have mastered the art of winning – beautifully, aggressively, sustainably.
The astute NZ Herald rugby writer Gregor Paul recently published a detailed analysis of how, he asserts, the haka could be messing with the ABs emotional balance when they start matches. Without doubt, it fires them up. Anyone who has done a haka before a fixture will tell you it heightens their aggression and pumps them up for the early physical exchanges. I would be prepared to bet the tight five get the most out of it, as it sets the tone for confrontation.
But the ABs game is built on accuracy. Accuracy requires clear minds, Grant Fox describes it as “Fire in the belly, Ice on the mind”. The All Blacks have been slow, stuttering starters, and have only secured victory at the last minute, for example against England in the second test in 2014 after the 71st minute, and against Ireland at the end of 2013 after fulltime. A better start would have gotten them there earlier. Gregor Paul calculates that in the 31 tests played under Steve Hansen, the opposition have scored the first points in over half the games and within 10 minutes of kickoff. Does this mean that players, especially in the crucial 8, 9. 10 and 15 jerseys, get too fired-up for the confrontation, and that the wrong decisions, even small ones, get made? And then you’re on the back foot. The modern game requires props to make a split-second call on whether to hit a ruck or act as the defensive guard dog, or on attack to provide the half back a running option or a screen to kick behind.
Gregor says the haka will always be done. It is entrenched in the All Blacks. It is a mix of ritual, intimidation – and yes, let’s say it, entertainment. Fans of all persuasions love it. But tradition has cemented it as a challenge, not a celebration. The challenge for the All Blacks is to perform at peak from the very first kick-off.