Doug Howlett: ‘The haka honours what’s been before us, and also the opposition’

Culture is a word and a concept that gets bandied around with some abandon in modern sport.

Doug Howlett: ‘The haka honours what’s been before us, and also the opposition’

Any coach or club worth a bean touches on it at some point in their evolution. Most tick the box and move on to more tangible objectives, failing to realise it is not something that cannot thrive on a page. Or on a blackboard.

Culture is lived every day, through every action and word, big and small.

No team understands that like the All Blacks. It is borne out in the manner in which they embrace their history and in each player’s determination to add their own few bricks to the edifice of excellence through an utter mastery of the basics.

More obvious still is the centrality of the haka.

Break it down on paper and it doesn’t add up to much: a bunch of grown men posturing for the sort of short, ceremonial routine that wouldn’t look out of place if put to music in ‘West Side Story’.

Throw it into a bowl along with the quality of rugby New Zealand play and the reverence afforded to the All Blacks for over 100 years and what you have is a bonding agent of unprecedented strength and a recipe for total intimidation.

Doug Howlett knew how to perform the haka when he was just a five-year old kid in Auckland. Thirty-three years and 18,000km separate the man from that boy now but he still speaks of the haka in reverential tones.

“No-one needed to teach me when I came in,” he says of his early days as an All Black. “There was some refining but it’s a sense of pride for any young player coming through. My own kids, they perform the haka so it’s great to see it’s still alive.

“The question I always have is the meaning behind it. This current group of All Blacks understand that. I think maybe the general public don’t and that casts a shadow over what we’re doing but it’s honouring what’s been before us and honouring the opposition. I think it’s a fantastic part of rugby.”

Most would agree.

Whether you are lucky enough to experience the haka live in all its majesty, or just catching it on TV or on YouTube, the guttural roar of crowds from Dunedin to Dublin and Denver all speak of a deep appreciation for the ritual. Those feeling the breath of its verses on their faces haven’t always been so appreciative.

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are unlikely to challenge the haka in Chicago this Saturday but the decision by Jim Davidson’s generation to close to within a nose of the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road in 1989 remains the benchmark for combative responses.

Wales kicked up such a stink in 2005 the Kiwis opted to perform it in their own dressing-room at the Millennium Stadium and France were fined for crossing the (halfway) line before the 2011 World Cup final.

The haka has always prompted debate about how to face up to it and those performing are not excluded from the discussion on etiquette or the doubts that rise up internally when the moment dawns.

Howlett used to think of the players who had worn the jersey before him. More often than not that flooded his brain with memories of John Kirwan but the weight of history and tradition could be heavy as well as inspiring.

When he made his debut against Tonga in Albany in 2000 he lurked unobtrusively at the back for the rendition of ‘Ka Mate’ lest his long- standing familiarity with the ritual was lost in the moment and he dishonoured it and himself. That respect hasn’t changed but his environment has. He’s almost a decade in Ireland now and that distance has offered him a different perspective. Howlett can see why the haka isn’t embraced with open arms by everyone but he stands firm in his defence of, and devotion to, its meaning.

“It’s an understanding the commercialisation of it was a concern for us as All Blacks way back when. There were (commercial) adverts when we had ‘Ka Mate’ promoting the haka. That was never to be and that was why we came up with ‘Kapa O Pango’.

“That was something new to the group, brought by us and this was the meaning to it. You will always get that commercialisation of it but as a group of players the key here was that it was internal and an understanding of what has been before.”

‘Kapa O Pango’ was introduced in 2005 before a Tri-Nations game against South Africa in Dunedin’s Carisbrook.

The ABs won a thriller but the significant change to a ritual that has roots stretching back to 1820 was just as sensational.

Howlett was a replacement that day and, with his Tongan roots, he was one of many on that team, and those that have followed, whose stories extended far beyond the boundaries of the North and South Islands. The new haka was written by Derek Lardelli, an expert on Maori culture and customs, after the players had sought advice from a number of specialists on multiculturalism. This would be a haka about the All Blacks, for the All Blacks.

It is not a war dance. Lardelli and the All Blacks are one in that. It is described instead as a ceremony that prepares the player for the task at hand while being a celebration of the country, the silver fern and the men in black.

Tana Umaga, captain at the time, explained it was to be a legacy for future players and teams and all the while stressing that this was an to the ‘Ka Mate’ rather than its replacement.

Here again was a culture being acknowledged, embraced and continued.

Love it or loathe it, it’s nigh on impossible not to admire the manner in which it has served as a unifying beacon for a team and a country. And if it sows the odd seed of doubt in your opponent then so much the better.

“To sing the anthem and do the haka ... I watched the All-Ireland final and they do the exact same thing: they do the parade and they sing their anthem,” said Howlett. “These are great moments in sport.”

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