The war challenge
Life has a way of putting you in random places at times, some call it fate, some call it luck and I call it blessed when you are plonked in the middle of 2 native teams as they do their countries war challenge at each other. Blessed has a double meaning too, in one sense being lucky enough to be up close to something so special and feeling the ultimate hit of how powerful and strong this heritage and pride is. The other side is thinking quietly to myself I am so lucky I was not placed here 100 years ago and these warriors are about to have me for dinner.
As television beams footage to the world via some frieky form of wave lengths of communication, these men are also sending signals to each other and they mean business alright. As a friend & Maori elder Taane Thomas once told me, "Every time a Maori performs the Haka, every one of their ancestors is right behind them too."
In the past I have played 10 years of good grade rugby, been nervous stepping out on the footy field, as you are, but walking out to the middle of these boys sizing each other up makes everything in rugby nervous memory vanish as there is only one thought now and this is it. It starts with the eyes and their chests, breathing is deep, everything else is dead quiet and the leader looks around his own boys as they prepare to start the challenge. Tonga with the Sipi Tau, Fiji with the Cibi, NZ has the Haka and Samoa perform the Siva Tau, they each have unique challenges, but there is one thread the same and that is the initial build up. Flashing back to the half way line before test matches where i have been lucky enough to take photographs, great men have been 6 feet away from me launching into the important psyching the team up for battle. Tana Umaga, Nili Latu, Semo Sititi & Dovi Alifereti are all fantastic leaders from these 4 nations & their faces still surface in my mind at the thought of the war challenge. These 4 men demand respect and get it, lots of it.
Once the men are engaged, the leader walks them together through the challenge, each of them is intensely eying someone in the opposite team. Some players eyes wonder around the opponents team looking at lots of them, the scariest type is the guys that solely look at one, there opposite number for the whole challenge.
As if this can't get any better soaking this up, it can when one challenge is engaged by another. When two teams show a might of respect for each other, yet unload their own spirit and might straight back at what is being sent to them. Fizzing is the western word that springs to mind, ready is another and they sure are after this and the first few tackles in the game make the State Of Origin look like child's play.
To look into a brief history of these challenges it goes a little like this.
The first New Zealand rugby team to tour overseas played 8 matches in New South Wales, Australia, in 1884. They performed "a Maori war cry" or haka before each of its matches. This tradition carried on to Europe during 1888-89, the team performed a haka before the start of their first match on 3 October 1888 against Surrey. They used the words "Ake ake kia kaha" which tells us that the haka was not "Ka Mate" as it is today. Initially they would perform the Haka dressed in traditional Māori costume but the costumes were soon discarded.
New Zealand played their first full international test match when it played Australia in Sydney in 1903. The New Zealand team performed a Haka which was composed for the occasion, as it addressed the "Wallabies".
The Siva Tau
The Samoan version is called Siva Tau. The true relevance of the Samoan challenge emerged in the 1991 RWC, when they composed a new version so as to have a stronger psychological impact on their opposing players. This impact was swift as this small Island nation reached the quarter finals & did this remarkable feat again in 1995.
The origins of the Cibi date back to the country's warring times with their Pacific neighbors and inter tribal warfare. On their return home the warriors heralded their victory by displaying flags - one for every enemy slain. They were met by the women who would sing songs with accompanying gestures. The Cibi was meant for open battle to inspire the troops, but it was sung with more vigor when the victorious army returned home to celebrate. Fiji prepared for its first-ever tour of New Zealand in 1939, the captain, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, thought his team should have a war dance to match the All Blacks' haka. His team adopted the Cibi and went on to become the only team to remain unbeaten on a full tour to New Zealand.
The Sipi Tau
Tonga's Sipi Tau is considered to be the most aggressive of the war dances as the players advance toward their opponents. It was an intense scene at RWC 2003 when Tonga and New Zealand faced off with simultaneous war dances. The Sipi Tau is a version of the Tongan kailao war dance. The kailao is typically without words, usually accompanied by drums. However, the Tongan team's Sipi Tau includes promises to "crunch fierce hearts".
These challenges are ultimately for the players, it is also entertainment and a buzz for the crowds, however we always need to remember it has been around for a lot longer than the game of rugby. This was highlighted vividly when the All Blacks played Wales in 2006. Wales wanted to have the national anthems after the Haka, this is against Maori protocol and the NZ team performed the Haka in the changing rooms to uphold their own values. This shows that the ritual is very entertaining, but we can never forget that it is a wonderful part of our rugby, but rugby is a small part of the great history of these cultural challenges. I for one am so glad they are here in our great game. The Western world struggles to match this, only a singing crowd in Wales can come close to an honest response to such greatness.