The British author and journalist Peter Bills’ new book, The Jersey: The Secrets Behind the World’s Most Successful Sports Team, comes out at an opportune moment and has caused something of a stir. In it Bills talks to a host of former players and coaches and gets the inside track on the single most successful sporting franchise in the history of the world. For those who have just returned from a holiday on Mars we are talking about the New Zealand All Blacks who, under current coach Steve Hansen, have lost just six of 77 Test matches.
The book has caused a stir for one reason: the haka, which the team performs ahead of every Test, has come under fire and, oddly enough, the criticism has come from inside the All Black camp rather than the usual suspects beyond it.
Andrew Mehrtens has 70 All Black caps to his name, during which time he collected a whopping 967 points, so no one can say he hasn’t earned the right to voice his opinion. And his opinion is that the haka has become “too commercialised” and he likened aspects of it to a “circus act”.
Mehrtens has since rowed back a little way from that stance, arguing that the pre-match ritual was an important part of All Blacks and Maori culture but the former fly-half retained his reservations.
“It’s a challenge, it’s laying down a challenge saying we’re ready if you are,” said Mehrtens. “I still believe opposition teams should be free to receive that challenge how they like. I don’t like the fact that there’s 20, 30 metres between the two teams, cameras, microphones, photographers lying there taking shots. I think that part of it has become too much of a circus act.
“It’s still important for us to do but it’s important for us to do it in a way that says, ‘look, this is part of our culture but we realise it’s an indulgence’.”
World Rugby now requires a wide gulf between New Zealand and their opponents when the haka is performed (France were fined in 2011 for breaching this injunction). This is to prevent the sort of confrontational response sparked by Willie Anderson when the then Ireland captain marched his men right up to the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road, back in 1989, and by Richard Cockerill who, eight years later, got up close and personal with his opposite number Norm Hewitt who just happened to be leading the Kiwi war cry.
This latter incident occurred before the game kicked off yet it remains infinitely more memorable than anything that happened during the match, so just what was Cockerill thinking then and now?
“Not much really,” he replies with a grin before expanding. “Before the game Clive Woodward said ‘find your opposite number and stand opposite him’. Nobody told me you had to be 20 metres away and being slightly simple I took it literally.
“I had a lot of criticism but a lot of Maori people contacted me to say they were happy with it... it’s a challenge. I think the majority of Maoris would encourage that [standing up] rather than turning away.
“Is it too commercialised? Probably but that is the way the game is going. Does it give them an edge? It may do or it may not, but from my own point of view it was something you wanted to face. You respected it but you don’t back down.
“As an opposition player it’s something you look forward to because it’s part of rugby history. It’s part of their heritage, there is a good story behind it and it’s fantastic theatre.”
David Campese used to kick a ball about at the opposite end of the pitch, as far away from the haka as he could get, and, here’s the point, no one slammed him for it. It was his choice how he responded and that was that.
Fast forward to the ill-fated Lions tour of 2005, when skipper Brian O’Driscoll threw down a piece of grass, as he’d been instructed was the respectful response to the haka, and still caused an outcry in some Kiwi quarters among people who seemed determined to be offended no matter what.
Another more recent Wallaby winger Drew Mitchell complained not about the haka per se but rather about its ubiquitous nature. RWC 2011 was held in New Zealand and, everywhere they went, the Wallabies were greeted by another song and dance routine.
“I think it should be reserved for those Test matches and those sporting occasions and not outside of that,” said Mitchell. “It shouldn’t be commercialised, it is a challenge before a contest.”
Coming back to the position of Mehrtens, he is right, isn’t he, on two counts?
Firstly the thing is an indulgence and secondly, choreographed to within an inch of its life, it has sold its soul to sponsors and become commercialised.
As if to prove the point, I am researching Kees Meeuws’ stats on a rugby site (42 caps from 1998-2004) which hosts an advert for Tudor watches illustrated by a raging storm cut with shots of the All Blacks doing their war dance.
“It has lost its mana,” the Maori Meeuws says, using a native word that refers to the spiritual power of the performance. “It has become a showpiece. They should do it at certain Test matches but not all.
“It was good a few years ago when they had a choice. But now they play 14 test matches a year and that’s too much as far as the haka is concerned. We should either have it at home or just away from home, like it used to be. Not both.”
As Meeuws correctly points out, the haka used to be reserved just for matches on tour, first employed by the “Originals”, the All Blacks of 1905. Only in 1987 did New Zealand start performing the ritual on home soil, with Buck Shelford and Hika Reid instrumental in the change. In the light of comments by Sir Colin Meads before he passed away in 2017, you wonder if the pair of them harbour any regrets.
“They haka everything now,” said Meads a few years back. “Some dignitary or sports person turns up or a film star at the airport, and they haka them. It is ridiculous. I think it has become a celebrity thing. All the schools practise it.
“It should be done before games but as a form of respect to the Maori. We were haka‑ed out there for a while and still are.”
Very few people within the sport want to see the back of the haka altogether, but it seems we have reached peak haka, and it may be a case of less is more. Home or away. Not both. Please.