New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team borders on unstoppable. For well over a century, the team that dresses in black but is far from emo has consistently ranked among the world’s best. This year, on home turf, the All Blacks won the world cup, barely breaking a sweat until the final.
“The team leaves an impression of invincibility and ruthlessness,”says tourism.net.nz. “That impression is in no small part due to the potency with which the All Blacks perform the haka.”
The “haka” is, of all things, a dance, but we are not talking Dancing with the Stars here.
As enacted by the All Blacks, the haka is a controlled eruption of energy that features eye-rolling, tongue-lolling, thigh-slapping, roaring, jumping: a spectrum of intense, expressive movements.
“More than any aspect of Maori culture, this complex dance is an expression of the passion, vigour and identity of the race,” says allblacks.com. The passion carries through into the chanting that amounts to much more than mumbo jumbo.
“Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!” the players shout, meaning “I die! I die! I live! I live!” The emphatic performance serves a psychological purpose. It lays down a challenge liable to psyche out the opposition.
The dance with a “psy ops” slant has its roots in the antics of one of New Zealand’s last great warrior chiefs – Te Rauparaha (1768-1849). A dynamic leader, Rauparaha rampaged from the upper North Island’s Waikato to the South Island where his troops wiped out European settlers and southern Maori.
According to legend, the strongman’s haka originated when he was on the run from his enemies. After hiding in a sweet potato field one night, he woke to be told by a “hairy chief” that his enemies had vanished. He then performed his victory haka.
At international rugby matches, the ritual that the happy warrior spawned is officially meant to welcome distinguished visitors and foreign dignitaries, conveying a sense of occasion. But the All Blacks perform the haka right in the opposition’s faces just before kick-off. The ritual gives the All Blacks an unfair edge, some sources reckon.
“Rugby is a psychological game: players cool down after the anthems and then have to get themselves up for kick off, and, lo and behold, just before kick off one team gets to gather, shout a lot, slap thighs and threaten the other team,” writes BBC sports reporter John Beattie.
Whatever the truth, one thing is certain. The haka gives the All Blacks an extra surge of adrenaline, pumping up the spring in their step as they prepare to meet the Aussies, Brits, Tongans – whoever is unlucky enough to be pitted against their electrifying pace and power. Since their first test match against Australia in 1903, the All Blacks have won over 75 per cent of test matches and kept the opposition scoreless in test matches 28 times.
That awesome pattern of success plays out in the haka’s exuberant, motivational last three lines. Here they are in translation: “Up the ladder, up the ladder,/up to the top./The Sun shines!”