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FEATURE – England’s impressions of the haka

31 May 2014

  • Attwood, Robshaw and Wood talk about facing the haka
  • “I absolutely love it, I usually pick out my opposite number” – Wood

The New Zealand rugby team’s version of the haka is a true spectacle in world sport, the unique manner in which 23 players offer a pre-game challenge saturated with history and emotion to their worthy opponents.

Stuart Lancaster’s England will face the Maori-originated war dance at Eden Park on Saturday morning (at around 8:30am UK time) as the familiar curtain raiser to three thrilling Test matches against the All Blacks on successive weekends.

New Zealand flanker Liam Messam lead the haka against England at Twickenham Stadium

Photo: Getty Images

Three players offer three different perspectives on how it feels to witness the contorted faces and demonstrative, aggressive arm movements so familiar to rugby fans all over the world. However, one theme is consistent: a deep and considered respect for the haka, which in Maori culture is not always a challenge but can be performed to welcome distinguished guests or offer admiration for great achievements.

Tom Wood’s face becomes animated when he recalls eye-balling opposite number Liam Messam, who led the haka for the All Blacks for the last meeting at Twickenham in November 2013.

As a devotee to tradition in sport and the variances which make facing different teams special, the 27 year-old considers it a rare privilege to have the haka performed to him from a mere ten yards away.

“I love it, I absolutely love it, I think it’s brilliant,” said the flanker, who will miss the first Test in Auckland due to Northampton Saints’ involvement in the Aviva Premiership final. “It’s always been one of the most exciting moments in world sport and something I always look forward to whether New Zealand are playing us or anyone else.

“I actually get quite annoyed when everybody sings over the top of it, I don’t feel like we need to reduce its effectiveness or anything else, it probably spurs me on more than them most of the time.

“I usually pick out my opposite number and give him the eye contact that he’s probably already giving me as recognition of what you’re about to do. Liam Messam led it last time as well, so that just brings that extra edge and gives you that realisation of what’s about to happen.”

Dave Attwood claims a lineout against the New Zealand Maori in 2010

Photo: Getty Images

Big lock Dave Attwood’s reaction to the haka is poles apart but no less respectful, with the Bath man preferring to remain ensconced in his thoughts during the minute-long intensity of the war dance.

By his own admission, Attwood has found himself on the wrong side of rugby’s laws in the early part of his career after becoming too pumped up for the contest with his opposite number. And now, with a view to the upcoming series, Attwood feels that if he can remain focussed during the provocative haka, then he will be able to deal with anything else the game throws at him.

“It’s a good motivator for the game, it’s very confrontational, it’s a good way of stirring that intensity up between the two teams,” said Attwood, who made his Test debut against New Zealand at Twickenham in 2010.

“From a personal point of view I have spent the time facing it trying to think about what I need to do [in the game]. It’s very easy to seek out your opposite number and treat it as bit of a face-off. But I don’t feel that personal battles win rugby games, I feel like if I can take that time and focus on what I’m going to do then that sets the precedence of how I’m going to perform. 

“With respect to my own personal history in rugby, I find that if you get too emotionally charged with your opposite number you can fall by the wayside. That’s been my experience and I find it a particularly good exercise in concentration. It’s pretty much as big of a distraction you can generate so if you can focus during that then for the rest of the game you should be fine.”

England captain Chris Robshaw celebrates the record victory over New Zealand in 2012

Photo: Getty Images

Given the intimidating eye-to-eye contact exchanged between the two teams, you would expect the figurehead of the team to be a particular target. But England captain Chris Robshaw, a cool and calculated operator on the field, remains calm during the haka and takes in the reactions of his teammates and the crowd.

For Robshaw, it is the how the intensity of the haka permeates all of Kiwi rugby that makes it something to behold, recounting a story of the crowd got involved when he played against the New Zealand Maori in Napier in 2010.

“It’s got deep roots and meaning to the people of New Zealand, especially the Maoris,” he said. “It’s great to witness first hand and it gets everyone so excited with the intensity, the ferocity of a marker which is being laid down.

“I tend to look at the whole team and look around the other guys looking at the opposition and look at the crowd.

“I went to Napier a couple of years ago and down there you get people in the stands doing the haka, so I’m sure a lot of people will be joining in [when we play in Auckland]. That’s where you really want to test yourselves. You’re a long way from home and it will be a very intimidating arena but also a very exciting one.”

New Zealand tour fixtures

(live on SkySports HD, all games 1935 NZST/0835 BST)

Saturday, June 7: First Test – Eden Park, Auckland
Saturday, June 14: Second Test – Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Tuesday, June 17: Crusaders – AMI (Addington) Stadium, Christchurch
Saturday, June 21: Third Test – Waikato Stadium, Hamilton

 

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