The haka, performed by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, is one of the most famous spectacles in sport. The traditional pregame challenge is an exhilarating display that gets the blood pumping through the veins of the Kiwi players as they prepare themselves for the game ahead. The All Blacks’ haka may be the best-known challenge in the sports world, but challenges are not limited to the haka, nor to New Zealand, nor to the rugby pitch. Several other Pacific Island nations perform their own traditional challenges—amongst others, Samoa perform the Siva Tau, Tonga perform the Sipi Tau, and Fiji perform the Cibi. But what of the opposing teams that do not have their own pregame ritual to perform? What are you supposed to do while such a spectacle unfolds before you in order to limit any psychological advantage gained by the opposition?
There’s a genuine debate to be had as to the best way for an opposition rugby team to best respond to the haka while showing it and the players the respect they deserve. Most teams stand stoically on their side of midfield, not moving a muscle, aiming to project strength and unblinking belief, showing how little they are intimidated. As we’ll see, other teams and players have been more creative. Here’s a tour around some of the most memorable responses to the haka and other challenges over the years.
Where else to start but with the most famous haka response: Ireland captain Willie Anderson goes nose-to-nose with All Blacks skipper Wayne “Buck” Shelford at Lansdowne Road in 1989.
Anderson’s response, dreamt up with coach Jimmy Davidson, was one of the first times an opposition team had tried to reclaim the psychological upper hand from the Kiwis. The authorities were temporarily alarmed: for the All Blacks’ next match against club side Ulster, referees stood between the teams during the haka, to make sure there was no repeat incident which might lead to trouble. Ireland’s response, and Anderson’s rousing of the crowd, was widely seen as a successful display of defiance, but nevertheless New Zealand were victorious, 23-6.
Richard Cockerill made a name for himself in his first-ever Test for England, crossing the halfway line to go nose-to-nose with opposition hooker Norm Hewitt during the haka in Manchester in 1997.
Neither man stood down, and there was a little bit of push and shove as the two No. 2s got up close and personal. Referee Peter Marshall briefly intervened to ensure the situation didn’t escalate. As the teams turned to take their positions, England hero Martin Johnson famously asked Cockerill “what the fuck have you done?” New Zealand won the match 25-8.
(England lock Garath Archer also crossed halfway so stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Cockerill, but for some mysterious reason neither Hewitt nor any other All Black paid him any attention.) Cockerill and Hewitt apparently kept their friendship alive, brawling “both inside and outside a taxi” after the teams enjoyed a few drinks in Dunedin the following year, leaving Cockerill with a black eye.
My vote for the two best-ever haka responses are the French stands of defiance before clashes with the All Blacks at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups.
Before the 2007 quarter-final at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Les Bleus took up guard at the halfway line, only meters from the All Blacks, dressed in red, white, and blue shirts, forming a human tricolor flag of defiance. French national hero Sébastien Chabal led the staredown in one of the most-spine tingling haka faceoffs ever, and France defeated the All Blacks 20-18.
The teams met again in the 2011 final, and as the All Blacks belted out the Kapa O Pango, the French team advanced forward in a menacing flying-V. Led by captain Thierry Dusautoir, who went on to play perhaps the greatest individual World Cup match in history, the French crossed the halfway line to challenge the Kiwis, for which they were subsequently fined £2,500 by World Rugby, despite the pleas of every thinking human on the planet (including New Zealand manager Darren Shand) that common sense should prevail. It did not, and despite arguably being the better team on the night, neither did France, as New Zealand were victorious 8-7.
Before the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward did some research. He came up with a response to be implemented by captain Brian O’Driscoll that would show respect for the challenge levied by the haka, and would demonstrate to the All Blacks that his team was ready for battle.
“It was based on getting an email from a Māori,” said Woodward. “It said the chief (O’Driscoll) should go out with one of the youngest players and he should then accept the challenge after the haka is done by picking up and throwing a piece of grass in the air as a mark of respect and friendship. That’s why we did it. We thought it was a nice idea.”
It’s possible that the Kiwis did not think it was such a nice idea. After O’Driscoll accepted the All Blacks’ challenge prior to the first Test, after less than one minute of play New Zealand captain Tana Umaga and hooker Kevan Mealamu picked O’Driscoll up by the legs as the ball was being passed out of a ruck and slammed him down on his head.
The infamous incident was not caught clearly on the television cameras; it was only several months later that amateur footage emerged giving a clear view of the tackle, although Woodward showed a frame-by-frame video of the incident at a press conference after the match. O’Driscoll escaped with only a dislocated shoulder, but his tour was over. The Kiwi players did not receive any sanction, and maintain their innocence to this day. Neither player checked on O’Driscoll as he was being carted off the field. Fans have speculated ever since as to whether Umaga and Mealamu acted intentionally, and if so, whether O’Driscoll’s grass-throwing was the catalyst. The incident led to a crackdown on dangerous tackles, and today any player lifting an opponent above horizontal risks receiving a red card. New Zealand won the game 21-3.
Wales and New Zealand played their first-ever Test in Cardiff in 1905, in a contest billed as the “Match of the Century,” between the two best teams in the world. Prior to that match, which Wales won 3-0 in controversial circumstances (read this excellent description of the game here), the haka was performed between the two countries’ national anthems. One century later, the haka was typically performed after the anthems and directly before kickoff, but Wales convinced the Kiwis to recreate the sequence in their 100th anniversary rematch (which New Zealand won 41-3).
The following year, Wales again requested the same order of ceremonies, citing consultation with two Māori chiefs in stating that their national anthem was an appropriate response invited by the haka. The WRU request was apparently submitted six weeks ahead of time, but on the day of the match, the All Blacks resisted. The two sides did not reach an agreement as to the pre-match scheduling, so the New Zealanders decided that they would perform the haka in their dressing room:
All Blacks captain and national hero Richie McCaw gave his team’s side of the story:
“The tradition needs to be honoured properly if we’re going to do it,” he said. “If the other team wants to mess around, we’ll just do the haka in the shed. At the end of the day, haka is about spiritual preparation and we do it for ourselves. Traditionally, fans can share the experience too and it’s sad that they couldn’t see it today.”
The Welsh fans, apparently unaware that the haka had already been performed backstage, booed when it became apparent that the teams were taking their positions and they wouldn’t get to witness the challenge live. New Zealand prevailed 45-10.
Some teams and crowds try to blunt any advantage offered by the adrenaline surge the haka creates.
England played the All Blacks at the home of rugby, Twickenham Stadium, in 2012. While the English players stood stoically in the face of the haka, the 82,000-strong crowd belted out a hair-raising version of England rugby’s anthem, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, drowning out the New Zealanders’ voices.
In one of its finest-ever victories, England won comprehensively, 38-21.
Rod Macqueen coached the Australian national team from 1998 to 2001, and under his leadership, the Wallabies developed a delaying tactic intended to level the playing field: observing the haka while still wearing their warm-up tracksuits. The Aussies would then stroll slowly to the sideline, remove their excess clothing, and then stroll slowly into position on the field. It was thought that the delay would cause the New Zealanders’ adrenaline to subside.
In addition, Australian singer John Williamson would often belt out “Waltzing Matilda,” Australia’s unofficial national anthem, before kick off in home Tests, and in matches against New Zealand, this was thought to be an additional way of achieving a calming effect. The organizers of the 2003 World Cup banned the pre-game “Waltzing Matilda,” declaring that each team could play one song only before each match (i.e., their national anthem), with exceptions only to be made for songs that are culturally important—which turned out to be the haka, and no others.
Eventually, both the Track Attack and the Schmaltzing Matlida (the Waltzing Matt Hilder?) were abandoned. Unfortunately, there are no official records of how many times each tactic was employed.
When two challenge-performing teams meet in a rugby match, they typically perform their challenges one after the other, in sequence. When Tonga met New Zealand in the 2003 World Cup group stage, the Tongans decided to start their Sipi Tau midway through the All Blacks’ haka, resulting in an incredible showdown.
On the eve of the 2011 World Cup, with New Zealand and Tonga due to meet again, tournament director Kit McConnell informed the teams of the pregame challenge protocol, proving that there is no issue a formal policy cannot take care of:
“Where we have two teams performing cultural challenges ... Team A, who in this case on Friday night is Tonga, will start their challenge first,” said McConnell. “And then it’s up to the other team to determine when they perform their challenge. The second team performing the challenge can wait until the first team finishes their challenge or they can start after the first team starts. So it’s not up to us to tell the teams how they choose to perform their challenge but Team A will start their challenge first, and (on Friday) it’s up to New Zealand to determine when and how they respond to that.”
Got that? The 2003 match was won by New Zealand 91-7.
Similarly, a 2008 rugby league match between the Australia Indigenous Dreamtime team and the New Zealand Māori team, a curtain-raiser to the 2008 Rugby League World Cup, featured traditional challenges from each side performed at the same time. The Australians appeared to have a slight numbers advantage:
The Australia Indigenous Dreamtime team won 34-26.
Before the 1991 World Cup semi-final, Australian left-winger David Campese decided to simply ignore the haka, taking a few practice kicks while the rest of the Wallabies stood at midfield. Campese then proceeded to play one of the greatest individual matches of all time, scoring one try and setting up another as Australia defeated New Zealand 16-6. Australia went on to win the Cup, and Campo was named Player of the Tournament. In 2010, Campese wrote this:
I’m often asked why I warmed up on my own while New Zealand performed the haka before the semi. I wasn’t disrespecting it. I actually believe in the haka; I think it’s fantastic and I’ve come up against it 29 times, but ahead of the game the coach said that whatever we did was up to us. I was quite happy, then, to go and kick the ball; that was how I did it, and it worked.
Five years later, in the first Test of the first-ever Tri-Nations series, the Australians decided to take Campese’s tactic to the extreme: have the whole team ignore the haka and continue their warm-up while it was performed.
The decision, which apparently did not have the full support of the players but was driven by management, backfired. New Zealand scored the first try in the opening minute, and didn’t look back, humiliating the Aussies in ruthless fashion. New Zealand were victorious 43-6.
(This wasn’t the first time a team had totally ignored the haka. A few weeks before Willie Anderson’s famous challenge in 1989, Welsh club Newport tried to give the haka the ol’ fingers-in-the-ears. Buck Shelford’s team marched down the field to confront the Black and Ambers while they were trying to show how little they cared, and then New Zealand dismembered them 59-9.)
The Italian national side tried to ignore-it-without-totally-ignoring-it before their 2007 Rugby World Cup group match. Standing at midfield, they turned to huddle in a circle when the Kiwis commenced the haka. New Zealand won 76-14.
Wales played the All Blacks at Millennium Stadium in 2008, having not defeated the Kiwis in a Test since 1953. New Zealander Warren Gatland had been installed as Wales coach one year earlier. In a team meeting three days before the match, Gatland asked the Welsh players if they understood the significance of the haka. In particular, did they know that the haka was only finished when the opposition walked away? Flanker Martyn Williams had the obvious follow-up: what would happen if the opposition didn’t walk away?
South African referee Jonathan Kaplan gave a hilarious account of the incident:
“When the haka finished I thought we were ready for the start of the game. But how wrong I was,” he recalls. “I sensed something was different though when the crowd got into it. I noticed some of the All Blacks not moving. I asked them to please go to their stations so we could start the game. They told me to tell the opponents to go. I said I would, so I went over to [Wales captain] Ryan [Jones] and asked him if he wouldn’t mind moving on. He told me that they wouldn’t move until the All Blacks moved first. I did feel a bit weird asking Ryan to move and I was also out of my comfort zone. But I was aware the crowd were enjoying it, So I just let it roll a little longer because it added to the theatre of the occasion. The stand-off was a couple of minutes long. Given that neither team was willing to move I decided it wasn’t my responsibility. Before the match there is a steward to make sure things run smoothly prior to kick-off. So I went back to the halfway line and started kicking the ball around.”
The two teams staged a tense 90-second blinking contest before the All Blacks dispersed. Despite Wales jumping out to a half-time lead, New Zealand were victorious 29-9.
France employed the same tactic before the semi-final of this year’s U20 World Cup a few weeks ago, with the resulting staredown lasting nearly 90 seconds. France won the stand-off, but New Zealand U20s won the match 39-26.
(Bonus round: It actually looks to me that Willie Anderson and Ireland’s famous challenge included a stare-down at the end, as well. But, the Kiwis ran to their positions before any sort of stand-off could begin, and recaps of the incident rightly focus on Anderson and Shelford’s nose-to-nose confrontation. I can’t find any record of any Irish player stating that this was also part of their intention, but it sure looks like it, especially given the way Anderson reacts like he had just won a pre-game contest.)
That’s one option, sure.
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes rugby.