Why Aussie great John Eales is learning the haka

By Jamie Pandaram, The Sunday Telegraph

John Eales filming his new documentary on the haka. Photo / Discovery Channel
John Eales filming his new documentary on the haka. Photo / Discovery Channel

If John Eales could have his time again, there's one thing he'd change.

July 6, 1996, at Athletic Park in Wellington, Eales and his Wallabies teammates ignored the All Blacks' haka, instead tossing and kicking balls at the other end of the field.

The Kiwis then inflicted the biggest defeat upon their Tasman rivals, 43-6.

Still haunted by the greatest regret of his glorious rugby career, Eales has recently travelled around New Zealand learning about the haka for a new documentary.

Eales was guided by All Black great Wayne "Buck" Shelford, the man who transformed the haka from a fairweather dance routine to its fiery, aggressive confrontation in the late 1980s.

The pair visited the kumara pit site of the Moari war leader Te Rauparaha, who screamed the famous "Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora (I may die, I may die, I may live, I may live)" chant as enemies advanced to kill him unsuccessfully in 1820.

They also visited indigenous schools where Eales was shown how to do the haka, and the gravesite of All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, who was on the field that day in 1996.

"It has been something that has nagged me," Eales said.

"I remember sitting next to [then Wallabies coach] Greg Smith on the plane on the way over to Wellington. Greg was a great bloke and a great friend, and sadly he's passed on. I'll always appreciate the opportunity he gave me to be captain of the team.

"I had confidence, but I didn't have the full courage of my convictions at that stage, so I stepped into that role, Greg spoke about [ignoring the haka], and instinctively I didn't feel as though it was the right thing to do. But I didn't stand up for myself at that point.

"As a team it wasn't something we spoke a lot about, no one said anything, but they saw that I didn't so they respected that I didn't.

"So I blame myself totally for that. Greg would've been 100 per cent behind me if I said 'I don't think that's the right thing to do', he would've deferred to that.

"So I don't blame him in any way, I blame myself.

"When it came to the day itself and we did our ball skills and drills, we tried to detract a bit from the haka, and we ended up diminishing much more from ourselves.

"When you go out there and play a Test for your country, you want to stand for courage and mateship, and we didn't show any bravery.

"And that was my fault."

Interestingly, the Wallabies also turned their back on the haka in the return match in Brisbane two weeks later. Australia led 16-9 at halftime before losing 32-25.

"We didn't face again at Suncorp, but rather than doing ball skills and drills we did it differently, we pulled in tight into a huddle so it was a different response," Eales said.

"We again didn't face it, but it was a more powerful response, because we drew from our internal selves at that moment, and we almost won that day, they scored a try after the fulltime hooter to beat us.

"I look at the two ways we didn't face it and the first time we didn't draw on each other, whereas the second time we did.

"And when you look at Ireland forming the figure-of-eight to honour Anthony Foley [last November in Chicago), you look at the French forming the arrowhead [in the 2011 World Cup final], they drew on each other.

"By drawing on each other, in a sense you're showing respect because you're saying 'They're challenging us so we've got to draw on each other to accept this challenge'."

Eales pitched the idea of a documentary on the haka to Discovery Channel years ago, but it was seized upon just this year by Mint Pictures.

"This has been a great journey because I've learned an enormous amount about what the haka is," he said.

"The haka is a lot more than a dance as some people might look at it from one side of the fence, it's this challenge that's thrown out to you, and it's even more than that.

"The Ka Mate haka which is the original one, is a deep story about connection to the past for all these people, so when the All Blacks do it, and Buck Shelford was a big part of bringing the context of 'Why do we do the haka?'

"He brought that sense of context and purpose to the haka for New Zealanders.

"I think it's a wonderful part of the game, people look forward to it, and it differentiates rugby from other sports, it's iconic."

And have the Kiwis forgiven Eales?

"Interestingly speaking to a few New Zealanders, some said 'We didn't actually have a problem with you guys not facing it on the day', and some said 'That was disrespectful'," Eales said.

"It wasn't as though they were united in their view, I don't think it quite put us in the category of the underarm delivery."

The one-hour documentary, John Eales Reveals: The Haka will premiere on Discovery Channel in August.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph.

- news.com.au

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