Rugby World Cup - from hakas to hwyl

(Rugby News Service) Wednesday 17 August 2011
Rugby World Cup - from hakas to hwyl
Wayne Shelford was one of the most passionate exponents of the haka

Swot up on your Rugby World Cup trivia as Ian Gilbert continues his series with the lowdown on pre-match rituals.

What’s the history of the All Blacks’ haka?

There are few more electrifying sights (and sounds) in sport than the haka. Just before kick-off, as New Zealand deliver their challenge to the opposition, the stadium crackles with excitement. Strictly, a haka is the generic name for a Maori dance, of which the All Blacks’ pre-match display is just one (two, if you consider they sometimes use the All Blacks-specific Kapa o Pango - first performed in 2005 - as well as the more traditional Ka Mate, Ka Mate). 

The call to arms is taken from a traditional dance used to prepare warriors for battle. First performed on the New Zealand Native Team’s 1888/89 tour of Britain, it was generally used only while on tour, but at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 it became a fixture before every Test.

Which haka to use, and who leads it, is decided by the team before each Test. One of the most passionate exponents was Wayne 'Buck' Shelford who, when he assumed the captaincy just after the RWC 1987, took his team-mates to a Maori school to see the students perform a traditional haka.

Doesn’t it give the All Blacks an unfair advantage?

New Zealanders would argue it’s every bit as much their heritage as the national anthem (God Defend New Zealand, which is also performed). Samoa, Tonga and Fiji also have pre-match dances – the manu siva tau, kailao and the cibi respectively.

Opinions differ as to how opponents should best counteract the psychological stirrings of the haka, ranging from indifference (Australia's David Campese would continue with his warm-up) to upfront hostility (during New Zealand's 1989 tour match against Ireland, Willie Anderson advanced on the New Zealand formation to finish nose-to-nose with Shelford).

Shontayne Hape, England’s Maori-descent centre who has also played rugby league for New Zealand, told London’s Daily Telegraph before playing against the country of his birth last year: “I have done it [the haka] before but if I give any advice to my team-mates it will be to stand tall, stare them back in the eyes and let them know we will accept the challenge.”

If a Scottish athlete wins gold at the Olympics for Great Britain, they play God Save the Queen, so when Scotland compete at rugby, why do they sing Flower of Scotland?

God Save the Queen is the national anthem for the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So, when those countries compete under the GB banner it’s one anthem for all; when playing rugby, they assume their individual rallying cry. The Welsh have Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers), the Scots Flower of Scotland, while Ireland, competing as a united side, will sing Ireland’s Call (for Dublin games the Republic’s anthem, The Soldier’s Song, is also sung). England stick with God Save the Queen, though there has been debate about using a dedicated song such as Jerusalem, which is used at the Commonwealth Games.

Should I be worried if I see a Frenchman with a cockerel stuffed in his bag?

Don’t worry – it’s not an animal rights stunt, though it might cause stadium security staff a few headaches. French fans have traditionally tried to smuggle a cockerel into grounds and when les Tricolores get their noses in front, that’s when le coq sticks his beak in, being surreptitiously released onto the terrain.

What about individual beliefs and superstitions?

Michael Jones, the New Zealand flanker who starred in the 1987 and 1991 campaigns, refused to play on Sundays due to his religious faith. Other players have had slightly more secular beliefs. Australian legend David Campese always insisted on running out last. England’s Jonny Wilkinson never warms up in his England shirt – though he prefers to call this part of his routine rather than a superstition.

And number 13 – lucky for some?

Will Greenwood’s superstition was something of a reverse ritual. England’s inside centre in the 2003 Final victory over Australia preferred to wear the 13 shirt, despite playing inside Mike Tindall. However, his compatriot Jeremy Guscott played in the 1991, 1995 and 1999 tournaments as outside centre but wore the 12 shirt. 

Food for thought

Jonah Lomu, the New Zealand wing who made mincemeat of opposition defences in 1995 and 1999, had a pre-match meal that was as much about sustenance as superstition: mashed potatoes, spaghetti and six egg whites. 

Now for Wales. Who or what is ‘hwyl’, and is it their 16th man?

The Welsh refer to the emotion of “hwyl” - roughly translated as patriotic fervour, and pronounced 'hoyle'. The Welsh fans maintain the country's strong musical tradition. When the first strains of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau float across the stadia of the North Island, expect the travelling support to be in good voice.