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Come on world rugby - show us your culture

Brighton, United Kingdom

‘Ikale Tahi performing the Sipi Tau

By Malcolm Mulholland

As early as 1888, when the trailblazing Native rugby squad toured the United Kingdom, sections of the British Press have tended to loathe the most famous pre-match ritual in the history of sport.

Fast forward 127 years and the "Hakarena" didn't exactly send shivers down the spine. It wasn't the first time opposing countries have tried to counter the haka; how about John Williamson leading a rendition of Waltzing Matilda in 1999, or the Welsh Rugby Union in 2006 insisting that the haka be performed before the national anthems that led to the All Blacks echoing the war challenge within the walls of their changing sheds.

 Criticism of the haka in rugby has existed ever since it was first performed. Yet at home we are fiercely proud of it, especially since 1985.

That year is seminal in haka rugby history. It was on the All Black tour of Argentina that Wayne "Buck" Shelford had a heart-to-heart with fellow Maori All Black Hika Reid and told the team they either perform it correctly or not at all.

Ever since, the dark days of the haka resembling the Hakarena have been consigned to memory. In many respects the sea change of 1985 coincides with a deeper appreciation of how the country as a whole values Maori culture and how we wish to see ourselves.

 The 1905 tour was the first time an All Black side performed the haka Ka Mate. The Originals were keen to entertain the Mother Country with a custom that has now stood the test of time. What is interesting about this development, however, is that New Zealand was not the only colonial outpost to display a ceremony related to their indigenous heritage.

 Such was the impact of the haka upon the Britons that when the Springboks toured the following year, they performed a Zulu-inspired war cry.

Our Tasman neighbours, when they also first toured the United Kingdom in 1908, also had their pre-match challenge. The origins of the Aboriginal war dance are said to have their beginnings with the Illawarra tribe and was performed by the Newtown Club.

Sipi Tau

Our Pacific cousins enjoy performing either a Sipi Tau (Tonga), Siva Tau (Samoa) or Cibi (Fiji).

Their responses, founded within their traditional culture of preparing for battle, add another attraction to the 80-minute sport and provide a clarion call for those looking to connect to a sport that has its origins in Warwickshire, England.

The unending debate regarding the appropriateness of the haka being performed and a notion that it gives our boys an advantage against their opponents is bound to continue. However, rather than criticising the haka and attempting to "disrupt" pre-match preparations when playing the All Blacks, why don't rugby authorities turn towards their country's own rich traditions and culture and respond accordingly?

Our Southern Hemisphere counterparts already have a precedent for a display of the indigenous culture of the lands from where they come. Why not reinstitute the practice with input from the appropriate Zulu and Aboriginal people?

When it comes to Northern Hemisphere teams, not all is lost. Take the French - the rugby club of Toulon are known to perform a war cry that comes from the 1940s, titled Pilou Pilou.

A close inspection of traditional pre-war rituals involving the home nations of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales would most likely reveal a chant or act of some description designed to inspire bravery and valour on the battlefield.

Rather than routinely criticise a practice that was initially encouraged by the Rugby Union to increase gate takings when rugby was in its infancy, why not use the opportunity for cultural exchange and add another dimension to a world sport that has much to offer?

I would much rather see two teams perform something deep and meaningful than bear witness to another attempt to mock a culture. That is the challenge that lies ahead and perhaps when the next Rugby World Cup is held in Japan we might also celebrate the diversity of cultures that contribute towards the game that is rugby.

Malcolm Mulholland, a senior researcher at Massey University, presented a paper at an inaugural Rugby in Union academic conference at the University of Brighton that challenged rugby authorities to find an appropriate response to the haka.