The Changing Room Haka

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In 2006 the All Blacks were accused of being pompous and arrogant when they performed the haka privately ahead of their test with Wales.

Ali Williams (L) and the All Blacks perform the Haka in the dressing prioir to the international rugby match between Wales and New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium on November 25, 2006 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

When the All Blacks toured the UK in 2005, it was 100 years since they had first visited the motherland. It was a big deal.

And because it was a big deal, the New Zealand Rugby Union had arranged an extra fixture against Wales – one that wasn't originally on the schedule – so they could create what was known as a Grand Slam itinerary. What that meant was the All Blacks would play Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, creating the opportunity to become only the second side to complete a clean sweep of the Home Nations.

The fact this was happening 100 years exactly since the All Blacks' first tour of the UK, made for a strong sense of history and occasion.

That was why, when they played the opening game of the tour against Wales, they were prepared to do things slightly differently. The Welsh Rugby Union proposed the idea of replicating the pre-game format of the 1905 test.

What had happened then was that as the All Blacks were performing the haka, the Welsh spontaneously struck up their anthem, Land of my Fathers as a response.

Initially, the Welsh proposal for 2005 was for the All Blacks to perform the haka, then for the New Zealand national anthem to be sung, followed by the Welsh. That wasn't quite replicating history and more importantly, it left the New Zealanders wondering if the Welsh were using history as an attempt to diffuse the impact of the haka.

The All Blacks didn't like the sound of that and threatened to not perform the haka at all. There were tense discussions and eventually compromise was reached the day before the game when it was agreed that New Zealand would sing the national anthem and then perform the haka. After which, the Welsh would then sing their national anthem.

It wasn't an easy decision for the All Blacks to make as it was asking for the custom of the last 80 years or so – where both anthems are sung and then the haka performed – to be changed.

But because it was a special, historic occasion, the All Blacks agreed. “We wanted to respect that, they asked us and after some long deliberations we decided to do it,” All Blacks captain Tana Umaga said after the 41-3 victory.

“There’s a lot of history behind it, but it won’t happen again, unless there’s a 100 year history with us and another country that wants to do it.”

The All Blacks were keen to labour the point that it was a one-off. They were keen to make sure that everyone in the world game realised that this wasn't a licence to start proposing new pre-game protocols and turn each test into a pantomime.

That's why All Blacks manager Darren Shand made a point of saying that there would be no agreement forthcoming if Ireland, Scotland or England made a similar proposal as the Welsh.

“We considered not doing the haka because it meant so much to us,” Shand said of the period earlier in the week when negotiations with the Welsh had proven hard to resolve.

“This team has taken real ownership of the haka - they see themselves as the guardians of it. It’s something hugely important to New Zealand culture and they wanted to take the high ground.

“It was precedent setting and something that hadn’t been done for 100 years. It was a big decision on this special occasion.”

Their efforts in making the situation clear didn't work because when they returned to Cardiff the following year, the Welsh said in a letter sent six weeks before the game, that they wanted to stick with the 2005 arrangements. The All Blacks could hardly believe it. Hadn't they laboured the point on all that and made clear they would never agree to it again without major historic justification?

The Welsh wouldn't budge. They were adamant they wanted the haka performed before their anthem. That was the deal the following year and that was what they now expected to become the norm.

As suspected by the All Blacks, the Welsh did indeed have an ulterior motive the previous year: it wasn't just about honouring 100 years of history, they saw an opportunity to change pre-match routines permanently.

Discussions between the two unions took place but neither side would budge. This time there would be no concession from New Zealand. It was either the haka last as per usual or no haka. And it ended up being no haka, bemusing the capacity crowd at the Millennium Stadium.

The All Blacks decided to perform the haka in their changing room before the game and had a TV camera film it.

Out on the field, New Zealand sang their anthem, followed by the Welsh and then the game kicked off. No one knew why and then a few minutes into the game, footage of the All Blacks performing the haka in their changing room were shown on the big screen.

There were mixed reactions to the changing room haka: some people supported the move saying the All Blacks were right not to be bullied into changing the protocol. There were, mainly Welsh, dissenting voices that accused the All Blacks of being pompous and arrogant.

The haka has always been a source of contention in the Northern Hemisphere and teams have long tried to come up with innovative and confrontational ways to counter it.

The move by Wales to switch the order of events was just another ploy to limit the impact of a piece of furniture which has become a treasured part of the international rugby landscape.

Wales effectively confirmed this when their chief executive Roger Lewis, said: “I don't think anyone comes out well in this - both sides regret what happened on Saturday. The WRU were only officially informed by New Zealand on the morning of the match that the haka was not going to be performed.

“This kind of brinkmanship is not good for rugby, it's not fair on the fans.” He went on to say he would be writing to World Rugby to suggest they implement new universal terms for pre-match protocol for tests against New Zealand.

But assistant coach Steve Hansen, who had been at the helm of Wales between 2002 and 2004, was unrepentant and made it clear they would not agree to any permanent changes. “At the end of the day this is a team that makes its own decisions, it's not going to bullied around by anybody, especially over something as dear to them as the haka.

“It's disappointing but at the end of the day that's what they did. We're comfortable with our decision because we don't believe the haka should be played around with. Doing it between two national anthems is a cop-out. It's trying to interfere with tradition and the culture of the team and we weren't prepared to put up with it.”

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was more forthright. He accused the Welsh Rugby Union of messing around with tradition. “The tradition needs to be honoured properly if we're going to do it. If the other team wants to mess around, we'll just do the haka in the shed [changing room].”

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