New Zealand’s pre-match haka may be one of sports most famous rituals and often claimed to intimidate opposing sides, but now its benefits to the All Blacks are being questioned.
Their reputation for being slow starters from the kick off has led to suggestions they are emotionally drained from performing the iconic haka, a traditional war dance once performed by the indigenous Maori before battle.
Lock Brodie Retallick’s dropping of the kick-off when the All Blacks lost the Rugby Championship decider to Australia recently typified the bumbling start that has become synonymous with the All Blacks.
Coach Steve Hansen had previously questioned whether “we are over-aroused or under-aroused,” as he sought ways to keep the All Blacks fired up from the time they left the dressing room until the opening whistle.
In theory the intense emotion channelled into the haka should have a powerful influence on the All Blacks and give them an edge as their opponents wait patiently for the theatrics to end.
But when they get outplayed in the opening quarter the question is raised whether the haka had removed them from the game strategies they focussed on minutes earlier.
Of their past 20 Tests, the All Blacks were behind on the board in 11 of them before a second-half revival to win 17.
Scrum-half TJ Perenara admits the adrenalin from the haka often causes him problems in the early stages of a game.
“I was making mistakes. Trying to do too much. Trying to make too many tackles, and in my position, you don’t make a lot of tackles.”
On the other side of the half-way line, not everyone is intimidated.
Martin Bayfield recalls from his days with England and the British and Irish Lions that he found the haka inspirational.
“I didn’t find the haka intimidating at all. In fact I found it motivational,” the former international lock said.
“You need something to inspire – the haka does exactly that,” he added, commenting he was similarly lifted by the Welsh singing “Land of my Fathers” before a Test and the French singing “La Marseillaise”.
There is no suggestion of the All Blacks doing away with the haka, which Richard Light, the head of the School of Sport at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, describes as a “spectacular ritual that has a powerful influence on the team performing it.”
While former All Black, Maori All Black and New Zealand Sevens player Dallas Seymour, now a consultant on Maori culture, does not buy into the theory the haka has an adverse effect he says players must learn how to use it.
“It can be a real advantage for us. I found it got my head and my heart in the right place. A lot of it comes from learning about the culture, learning how to use it in that environment before going into battle,” he said.
“If guys don’t know how to use it it could affect their performance a couple of percent for a while.”
“Regardless of what the opposition or anyone else thinks it’s us versus them and may the best team win with whatever tools are at their disposal. We don’t need to apologise at all for that.”