The Fields of Rugby: Crossing cultural boundaries

After Ireland's narrow defeat to New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup, does the Haka still have a place in modern rugby?

Laura Kasongo
7th November 2023
Image Twitter @VMSportIE
On 14th October, Ireland faced New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final. I only knew about this for two reasons: the pub I live near was packed and Tik Tok. I’m not an avid sport-enjoyer but my algorithm knows I can appreciate Paul Mescal, Taika Waititi and some social controversy. In particular, it was the reaction to the New Zealand team’s Haka which flooded a lot of phone screens.

Originating in 1888, before every match, the All Blacks perform the Haka – a Māori ceremonial war dance representative of not only group unity, but connection to cultural ancestry. At the game, Ireland fans countered this, loudly singing ‘The Fields of Athenry’ by Pete St. John – a song which also holds cultural and historical importance in referring to the Famine. Both the Kiwis and the Irish highly value vocality as a form of expression, so naturally when paired together there was bound to be some tension.

Watching and listening to the video myself, I could feel the passion and heat in the moment from each side. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it and reading the comment section certainly didn’t help. Whilst I am neither Irish nor Kiwi, there does seem to be an element of false ‘wokeness’, with people being quick to judge the singing during the Haka. There is a fear in silencing, or in this case overriding, previously oppressed voices and it is so prevalent that we ignore how the war cry is actually a challenge to the opposition that welcomes reaction.

For years, teams have come up with unique ways of combatting the challenge. However, when France (2011) and England (2019) faced the Haka in V-formations, they were fined £2500 for crossing the halfway line which meant breaking ‘cultural ritual protocol’. Teams are instructed to respect the cultural practice and arguably Ireland themselves did so at this quarter-final. Simply standing in a line with their arms interlocked, they expressed team unity courteously towards the All Blacks’ Haka. Yet, people are in two minds over their fans’ reaction. It is almost impossible to control the thousands in stalls and even if it wasn’t just any random song, cultural respect is a wider social conversation that sport often holds great influence over.

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AUTHOR: Laura Kasongo
Arts Sub-editor, Poet and Photographer.

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