It seems like every time the All Blacks head out on one of these interminable Northern tours the English rugby writers draw straws to see who gets to roll out their anti-haka piece. This year, the Guardian’s Frank Keating won the lottery, and got to write his ‘think-piece’ describing the haka as a “now charmless eye-rolling, tongue-squirming dance”. I think the accusations of racism or cultural insensitivity are kinda moot; he’s probably guilty on both counts (elsewhere he calls it the “pre-match native rumba”, wtf?), but that’s not really why I take issue with him.
No, my major complaint about the man’s column is basically that he’s just plain wrong on the subject, and if the first Kiwis-England game’s thrilling prelude hadn’t convinced him then surely the incredible scenes prior to the match in Cardiff must have.
Each was sporting theatre of the highest order, and Wales’ stoic meeting of the challenge, and the two-minute face-off that followed was the most spine-tingling event to occur on the field that evening. Take that away and it was another test match, occasionally diverting but ultimately would you be talking about it in a year’s time were it not for that thrilling moment?
Ali Williams’ nervously darting eyes betrayed the inner feelings of the All Blacks, no one out there had any idea what to do; neither retreated and the challenge was unequivocally met by that Welsh side. But Keating would have that moment banished, just as the IRB attempted to during that farcical game where the haka was performed in the dressing room: brilliant televsion, but a real slap in the face for the tens of thousands who paid to see the match.
To witness the haka live is to feel its emotional and historical importance; that there isn’t an equivalent Australian or English counterpart doesn’t mean it should be banished. The differences between nations are what makes international sport interesting, and rugby, as a sport clinging to a sense of gravity and importance (only a few nations would have to fall away and you’d have the Rugby League World Cup), needs all the unique cultural force it can get.
So Keating can voice his opinions, but we don’t have to pay them any mind. The fact is, most English rugby reporters are only writing about the code because they’re not quite talented enough to get the football beat. Keating’s been chief sports reporter for the Guardian before, so that clearly doesn’t apply to him, but he betrays a lack of a sense of what makes rugby tick, and sounds, to be honest, like an old colonial lamenting the passing of the glory days.
They’re past. This is the modern world, and the haka is very much a part of it, and one that links our current rugby tradition with different times, shows the bedrock of our nation before we enter the on-field battle. Keating’s charge that it is unfairly “intimidating” implies that Richie McCaw’s tackling technique could somehow be made less or more terrifying by pre-match events, which I can’t imagine any player would countenance. The haka is New Zealand, attempts to banish it could only further increase the homogeneity of international rugby, a sport already in danger of being crushed by bureaucracy, and one which needs to let it all hang out, all its warlike bloodlust, to compete against the behemoths of global sport.