Holbeck: How are we to respond to the Haka?

The Rugby Championship
by James Holbeck

When I found out I was selected to play for the Wallabies against New Zealand in 1997, the first thing I did was to find a mirror. I practised the faces I would pull as I imagined standing in response.

All those days of dreaming of playing for Australia and facing the Haka had finally arrived. I contorted my face in ways that bristled with anger, my jaw clenching in an attempt to look the part of being a hard-man. At first I was impressed with my own toughness but within seconds I thought to myself, you idiot! “Have a look at yourself.”

The Haka can feel at times like life itself. It appears to be calling you out, challenging you and asking whether you have what it takes. Those that are not able to stand to face the perceived intimidation may find themselves cowering into smallness. Feeling isolated in that they have come to believe that they are not enough. Others will respond to the challenge by making their physical appearance more impressive, puffed up like a peacock on full display! Showing their teeth like a rabid dog!

In speaking at schools, I often use the Haka as this analogy for life. In response to life’s challenges, people are contorting themselves and pulling faces to hide them selves away and feel safe behind the mask or alternatively shrinking them selves down into invisibility. Both reactions indicate we are subversively controlled by what life, or in this case, the opposition’s Haka is doing. Both responses however suggest that we feel a need to pretend to be more or feel like we are less than enough.

What is the point? We may need to find another perspective of how we perceive and respond to the Haka.

For many years I had seen the Haka as an unfair advantage where one team gets to call you out without a right of reply. If you ignore, it is deemed disrespectful. If you march upon it, you are the ones charged with being provocative. You should just stand there and take it. At most you are allowed to uncomfortably shuffle from side-to-side, like you are forced onto the dance floor at your best mates wedding.
“Who does he know that is a Kiwi”, I firmly asked my sister after my nephew feigned to cut my throat? Sure enough, one of his friends from school.

If that is how you understand the final action of the most recent Haka, Kapa O Pango, then you will probably find that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Like the schoolyard bully who keeps using their power to challenge your reputation without recourse.
A friend then recounted that when he left his church, a group of men stood up to honour him with a Haka. Then I saw a retiring New Zealand headmaster walking through a Haka as a mark of respect for his 18 years of service at Napier Boys High School. Then I saw former All Blacks perform the traditional Haka, Kamate, at the funeral of rugby great, Jonah Lomu. The evidence was mounting to suggest my perspective of the Haka being simply a threat was blatantly wrong.

What about the final action of Kapo O Pango? Isn’t that a blatant menacing threat, you may ask?
According to the Haka’s writer, Derek Lardelli at allblacks.com/teams/haka, the aforementioned action is actually the embodiment of energising their own vital organs with their hand. In the writer’s own words…“This is not a war-dance. It’s about developing confidence inwardly. The spiritual side and then making that spiritual side connect with the soul and coming out through the eyes and the gestures of the hands.”
What if the Wallabies understood that Kapo O Pango was written as a ceremonial preparation to help the players physically, emotionally and spiritually represent what the opportunity means to them?

What if the Wallabies were first led onto the sacred grounds around Australia by a single didgeridoo player, as Canberra school St Edmunds College did recently?

What if the Wallabies allowed the Haka to be seen as honouring and respecting them as an opposition? Energising them. Preparing them for battle by symbolically, arm-in-arm, staying true to the integrity of the team. Standing strong in the face of adversity as one.

What if the Wallabies no longer felt the need in that moment to prove anything by contorting their image to match the perceived intimidation of the opposition or by shrinking down? What if they replaced the sense of intimidation with a simple call to bring all that they have to bring?

What if they took the time to reflect on what the jersey means to them? Reflected on those people they are representing and the sacrifices that have opened the door of opportunity for them.

What if they were only affected by allowing the Haka to build an inner drive that slowly increases; silently and deliberately, waiting patiently for the moment that the whistle blows to fully embody the heart of what the Wallabies represent?

James Holbeck is a former Brumbies and Wallabies centre with an Honours in Psychology. James has since earned a reputation as an insightful mentor & coach at Hope Beckons


The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.