The New Zealand All Blacks are one of the most revered rugby teams on the planet, who, as well as their skill on the field, are known worldwide for the haka, which has become an icon of the sport in itself.

Coming from Maori culture, the haka was originally a war dance that was performed by one tribe – or iwi – to challenge another. Nowadays though, it’s used to celebrate and mourn, as well as before various sporting events.

The haka and rugby

In 1888, the New Zealand Natives were the first rugby team to use the haka, before the first All Blacks side to tour the British Isles performed it 17 years later.

The challenge was only originally performed by the All Blacks in test matches outside of New Zealand, before this changed in 1987. The haka was also taken more seriously following this shift.

The most common haka the All Blacks perform is called Ka Mate. It’s a haka that former All Black Liam Messam has not only performed many times before, but has also led before test matches.

For Messam, the traditions of the war dance go beyond the rugby field, as it’s ingrained “in our [New Zealander’s] DNA”.

“It’s not just important to people who’ve worn the black jersey, but to a country. It’s paying respect to our ancestors,” Messam told World Rugby.

The meaning, purpose and value of the haka is ingrained into local culture from a young age, with it being prominent throughout New Zealand life.

Hailing from Rotorua in the country’s North Island, a city which has a heavy Maori influence, as well as being of Maori descent himself, Messam had no issue with gaining confidence with the haka.

“They just expect you to know it. You should know it because you’ve been doing it since you were a kid. Really you’ve just got to go out and ask if you don’t know.

“They do a really good job in making sure that everyone is comfortable and ready to do it because if you ask most debutants, one thing that goes through your mind is not stuffing up your first haka.”

Leading the haka

Messam was first told that he would be leading the haka by All Black greats Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu, but revealed that he declined the opportunity at first.

“When they first told me I said no because, especially in our culture, you pay respect to your elders, and people that have a lot of mana (spiritual power) should lead the haka.

“I wasn’t practising in front of the mirror, but I was making sure that I was going over my lines and not stuffing it up.

“It’s a huge honour for myself to lead such a prestigious thing in the world of rugby, and for our country.

“You don’t have to be Maori, but I think that the preference is that you are Maori. But we’ve had guys like Tana [Umaga], Richie, Keven, who have all led the haka before.”

Messam led a famous haka in 2013 in front of 80,000 England rugby fans at Twickenham, who nearly managed to drown out the challenge by singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.

After the match, he made headlines by admitting he nearly fainted after trying to match the enthusiasm of the home side’s supporters.

“It was Dan Carter’s hundredth [test]. They just started singing their song, that song that gets under everybody’s skin.

“It was hard to hear, the boys were struggling to hear but that’s the beautiful thing about the haka, because even though you couldn’t really hear each other, we can still feel the vibe and the connection between each other.”

Kapa O Pango

In August 2005, against South Africa at Carisbrook, the All Blacks debuted a new haka called Kapa O Pango, which was created for the All Blacks.

Led by Umaga, the hosts shocked the Dunedin crowd by performing this alternative to Ka Mate for the first time.

In an video, Umaga said that experts were brought into the All Blacks camp to speak with the leadership group about the purpose of the haka. Kapa O Pango, which translates to “team in black”, was then created to sit alongside the more traditional Ka Mate, rather than replace it.

Kapa O Pango is widely regarded by spectators as the haka that the All Blacks use for bigger test matches, or when they’re trying to bounce back from a loss.

But echoing Umaga’s comments, Messam highlighted that it’s just an alternative to the more traditional haka in Ka Mate, and that it in fact carries a similar meaning.

“They both have significant meanings [Ka Mate and Kapa O Pango], it’s just two different hakas.

“When it first came about I think it was just a new beginning that the All Black team wanted. The meaning and the power behind it is the same as Ka Mate.

“People think that with Kapa O Pango, that the All Blacks only do it for the big games which isn’t true. Pretty much on captain’s run, the day before [a match], the leaders make their mind up on which haka they’re going to do.

“It still has the same meaning, the same powerful spiritual vibe that it can give off.”

Challenging the haka

The challenge that the All Blacks make to their opposition is there to be responded to. In fact, according to Messam it’s what “it’s all about”.

“For other teams to accept their challenge and put their own challenge out, that’s all part of it and that’s fair play to them.

“The boys fully understand and respect that. Obviously there’s an element of respect that goes both ways.”

The most recent response to the haka to create headlines came at last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, in the semi-final between New Zealand and England.

England moved closer to their opponents in a V-shaped formation, which sent the Yokohama crowd into a frenzy. The All Blacks coach at the time, Steve Hansen, later described the reply as “imaginative” following his side’s 19-7 loss.

But players and teams have been coming up with unique responses to the challenge for decades.

Back in 1991, Wallabies winger David Campese decided not to face the haka. Instead he began kicking a ball by himself until his opponents finished issuing the challenge.

17 years later, Wales gave one of the best-remembered responses to the challenge with an intense standoff at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Neither side took a backwards step for nearly a minute and a half.

But arguably the more notable response came at Rugby World Cup 2011. In the tournament’s final at Eden Park, France, led by captain Thierry Dusautoir, responded to Kapa O Pango by marching toward their opponents in a V-formation – no doubt inspiring that England team eight years later.

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