'Awesome' welcome impresses Wales

(Rugby News Service) Sunday 4 September 2011
'Awesome' welcome impresses Wales
Wales captain Sam Warburton arrives at the team's welcome on Sunday

WELLINGTON, 4 Sept. - Wales were honoured with their first haka of the Rugby World Cup during a ceremonial welcome to New Zealand on Sunday afternoon.

The best-known Maori haka - Ka Mate - was performed as the team filed into Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua City just outside Wellington, a venue named after the Maori chief who composed that particular version of the challenge.

Earlier, team captain Sam Warburton had faced down a fearsome challenge, or Wero, from warrior Toa Waaka of the local Ngati Toa Rangatira tribe, resolved when Warburton picked up a fern laid down as a symbol of peace.

The team was then escorted inside the hall by Ihaia Biddle of the Ngai Tuhoe, another local "iwi", or tribe.

The welcome was to have taken place in the Ngati Toa Rangatira marae, but the death of an important member of the iwi meant the marae was needed for the funeral service.

But switching to less traditional surroundings didn't detract from the strong cultural impact of the ceremony, which fascinated the players.

Cultural exchange

"This is awesome. It’s so unlike anything back home. It’s great to experience the local culture like this," said centre Jamie Roberts.

Former England captain Bill Beaumont, a director of Rugby World Cup Limited, said the ceremony was "fantastic" and noted that similar welcomes were being given to teams all over New Zealand.

"I think it's important. Rugby's part of the culture of New Zealand and players appreciate it," he said.

After several speeches delivered in Maori, Wales assistant coach Robin McBryde contributed to the cultural exchange by responding in Welsh, before switching to English to explain the symbols on a carved gift from the team to the city of Porirua. These included the leek, harp, daffodils and two overlapping spheres, representing "love held safe and secure".

"And looking at some of the faces over there (pointing to the team), we need all the help we can get," he joked.

The humour was flying in the other direction too, with two of the Maori speakers suggesting Wales were welcome to take home the silver but to leave the gold - a reference to the Webb Ellis Cup.

Wales will play South Africa on 11 September in their opening match in Pool D, which also includes Samoa, Fiji and Namibia.

RNS pr/gs/tc/mr