LONDON—The Rugby World Cup is drawing to a close, which means one of the most popular traditions in all of sports is again in the spotlight: the haka. The haka is an intense, physical, full-body dance performed by all 23 members of New Zealand’s All Blacks.
The first haka of the tournament by the defending champions, performed before the team’s opening match against Argentina’s Pumas at Wembley stadium earlier this month, snared more than 18 million views on the Rugby World Cup’s Facebook page alone. This was a new spearhead (kurutao) formation of the famous Ka Mate war dance created in the 1820s by indigenous Maori tribe chief Te Rauparaha.
Most Americans—if they’ve heard of the haka—will know it best from a less traditional venue: the 2014 Basketball World Cup, when the Tall Blacks’ performance seemed to befuddle American NBA stars like James Harden and became a viral hit. Though it is probably the most famous haka in America, it wasn’t the finest performance of the legendary dance. The venue didn’t quite gel, and the performance by the relative basketball newcomers—New Zealand put up a good fight, but lost that game 98–71—didn’t carry the emotional weight, power, and just raw numbers of dancers of a similar performance by a rugby team that has dominated its sport in recent years. Nor was the version the rugby team performed versus Argentina in this World Cup’s opening weekend that garnered tens of millions of views the greatest performance of the dance ever. Great hakas are about the physicality of the performance and the emotion in the performers’ faces, but they are also often remembered after-the-fact for the wins that it feels like a particularly impressive haka has ultimately contributed to.
In June, rugby’s governing body suggested that the haka that star half-back Piri Weepu led before the 2011 Rugby World Cup final against France in Auckland was the greatest of all time (the All-Blacks won that game 8–7 in the closest final in tournament history). For a long time haka afficianados thought the 2004 performance in Paris, led by Tana Umaga—the team’s first Samoan-Kiwi captain—was the best ever. If you watch the video, you can see it certainly was an all-consuming performance, with one of the all-time great centers (now retired) putting every element of his being into it. For my money, though, both of these classic performances have now been topped.
The haka is currently led by one of Umaga’s teammates on the field that day, Keven Mealamu, and Mealamu’s team just put in the greatest performance of the dance I have ever seen on a sports field. The power of the performance was heightened by the fact that it was attempting to try to counter another stirring war dance: Tonga’s Sipi Tau.
Rugby is the one mass popular sport more than any other that embraces and celebrates indigenous cultures; multiple teams have some version of a traditional war dance. Like Fiji with their Cibi and Samoa with their Siva Tau, Tonga have had moving and powerful moments with their own dance through this Cup. The dueling Sipi Tau and haka prior to the first-round match between Tonga and New Zealand at Newcastle’s St James Park was the most scintillating, intense, and beautiful performance of the dance in modern rugby history.
Not only was it breathtaking, the dueling dances grounded the extraordinarily physical tone of the 80 minutes of rugby to follow. “We’re going to tell the whole world that God and Tonga is our inheritance,” Tongan center Siale Piatau explained before Tonga took the turf.
It was impressive to see the heart with which Tonga—a tiny and impoverished nation—performed the Sipi Tau dressed in their traditional luminous red jerseys that contrasted sharply with New Zealand’s black. The All Blacks response was incendiary, 23 men moving with a razor-sharp unity and collective purpose. The resulting rugby was worthy of the display. Tonga’s superb first half was probably the best they’ve ever played. Meanwhile, the All Blacks, rebounded from an unconvincing victory over surprise darlings Georgia to claim the win, overcoming the Tongans with graft, flair, and legs, scoring seven tries.
Mealamu, one of the gentlest and most peaceful people you will ever meet, is ferocious between the white chalk lines, both when the whistle blows and before it when he leads the haka. Ka Mate’s lyrics literally describe the sport in the most intense possible terms: “Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!/ It is death! It is death! It is life! It is life!”
The haka itself is emblematic of the increasing respect and recognition of Maori culture within New Zealand’s society. The dance has been used as a moving farewell to fallen soldiers in Afghanistan and a beloved teacher in Palmerston North, showing its hold on the New Zealand people. A settlement process and the country’s inclusive proportional democracy (21 percent of the New Zealand parliament’s members identify as Maori) are national attempts to rectify some ugly colonial history and massive land theft.
On the field, the haka has been part of New Zealand rugby’s revival since 2004 to the pinnacle of the game. “The haka is the All Blacks energy,” says center Conrad Smith, one of the team’s vice-captains. “We weren’t doing the haka that well in 2003,” Smith recalls of the year that the All Blacks crashed out of the World Cup semi-final against Australia. “We were thinking about doing it only for special occasions, or even dropping it completely!” he says. “Reconnecting with Ka Mate [since 2004] has been massive.” That 2003 tournament saw the All Blacks disappoint in the quadreniel Rugby World Cup for the third (arguably, fourth) time in a row. Since 2004 when the team redevoted itself to the haka, the All Blacks have won almost 90 percent of their games.
In Dunedin in 2005, New Zealand’s Southern-most city witnessed the surprise introduction of Kapa O Pango, a new version of the haka, composed by Ngati Porou tribe leader Derek Lardelli, and it fired up the All Blacks and the shivering crowd as they eked out a victory against South Africa, their fiercest rivals, in near-Antarctic conditions.
Kapa O Pango symbolises how Tana Umaga and All Blacks coaches Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, and Wayne Smith brought together the best of Maori, Samoan, Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent), and other Pasifika cultures.
Former All Black player Rico Gear, from the Ngati Porou tribe where the new rendition of the haka was composed, says that performing a haka like the one in Dunedin or the last of his career in Australia is a singularly intense experience. “You need to know how to come back down,” Gear told me. “As long as you’re focused, you can show that ihi [essential force] and wehi [awe] through your eyes, and through your actions, without going crazy. And again [it’s] that controlled aggression, which relates to rugby where you need to be mentally in control.”
In Cardiff last week, the All Blacks performed a storming rendition of Kapa O Pango (the translation of this dance’s name is Team in Black) before their quarterfinal game against World Cup nemesis France. They demolished the 2011 runners-up 62–13, the biggest quarterfinal victory of all time, setting the stage for Saturday’s semi-final against South Africa’s Springboks in London. Whichever haka they bring to the match won’t determine the outcome. But it might very well set the tone for how the game and team will be remembered—very possibly as the first team to win back-to-back World Cup titles.