Show a Little Respect

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by Patrick O’Connor

IN common with most football grounds recently, Derby County held a minute’s silence before their English League Cup game against Leeds United as a tribute to those who lost their lives fighting for their country.

As a few noisy Leeds latecomers entered the stand, the more senior visiting fans shouted out “Sshhh… some respect.”

And respect – or rather the perceived lack of it – was at the heart of a bitter exchange of words in the Rugby League World Cup Group A clash between England and New Zealand in Australia.

The Kiwis stand-in captain Benji Marshall accused England of being “disrespectful” by turning their backs on the haka, the traditional Maori dance performed by New Zealand’s rugby union and rugby league teams before international matches.

The haka is described as a  posture dance, with shouted accompaniment. The war haka was originally performed by warriors before a battle, to show off their strength.   It may be regarded as being quite fearsome, especially from a distance of only 10 metres away – the players contort their faces showing the whites of their eyes and poke out their tongues and there is a wide variety of actions such as slapping hands against the body and stamping the feet, accompanied by blood-curdling war cries.

Hakas are also performed for various other reasons such as an integral part of formal or official welcome ceremonies for distinguished visitors or foreign dignitaries. 

Although the routine is enjoyed by spectators, it has been criticised as an unsporting attempt to intimidate the opposition.  But in spite of this reservation, most teams accept that the haka is a legitimate part of the New Zealand’s heritage and face up to the All Blacks.

So, when the English players huddled in a circle facing inward as the haka was being performed, Marshall wasn’t impressed.   “To be honest, I thought it was a little bit disrespectful – and a few of the boys said that. If that’s how they want to approach the game, that’s their choice,” he said.

England’s coach Tony Smith defended his players’ actions. “Where we come from, we get in huddles. That’s what we do – whether people do hakas at us or not. When players in England want to pump each other up, that’s what they do.”

He went on: “I’m not sure you should sit there and take it as a victim. Some people in some cultures would find the tongue pointed at them as offensive as well.”

Maybe before deciding on their huddle, Smith and his team should have looked at this report from the English Daily Telegraph newspaper in September 2007 when New Zealand’s rugby union side took on Italy in Marseille.

Reporter Steve James wrote: “When will sides learn? It should be a commandment pinned to the wall of every international dressing room ‘Do not rile the All Blacks unnecessarily.’   They are a useful enough outfit away without requiring extra motivation. Opponents should know by now that the pre-match haka is pretty precious to them.  So, they should face up to the challenge like men. They should not converge in a huddle and refuse to pay it even the scantest regard, as Italy did here yesterday. It miffed the Kiwis no end.”

New Zealand won 76-14.

And perhaps not surprisingly England paid the price for their decision. After leading 24-8 in their Group A match on November 8, they eventually succumbed 36-24.

Move on a week and the two teams met up again in the semi-final with New Zealand again winning 32-22, the victory being sealed by a 79th minute try by — Benji Marshall!

Who says revenge isn’t sweet….