Greetings of Defiance

Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens; Dec 16, 2013 @ 10:45

The All Blacks have their war cry, but long ago so did the Wallabies and other teams.

In 1884 the first New Zealand Rugby side was formed, journeying across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. The team’s enduring legacy is the tradition that they gave birth to – the haka.

The Maori war cry made an instant and lasting impression. A Sydney newspaperman described it as “the sound given in good time and union by 18 pairs of powerful lungs was sometimes tremendous,” adding that “the NSW men declared it was hardly fair of the visitors to frighten them out of their wits before the game began.”

The New Zealand team though were soon not the only Rugby team to have a war dance.

Illustrated London News, Oct.13 1888
Illustrated London News, Oct.13 1888

In 1888 the New Zealand “Natives” team, comprised mostly of players of Maori descent, toured Britain. Still five years before the NZRU was formed, the tour’s manager and players did little to hide the fact that profit was as much their goal as the love of an adventure. A big part of the team’s newspaper and poster advertising was the inclusion of the performance by the team of a Maori haka.

Apart from the Aboriginal cricket team that toured in 1868, the “Natives” provided most Britons with their first chance to see indigenous people from the colonies. For many spectators, the football talents of the Maoris were an incidental attraction.

“They dance a war-dance and sing a war-song before beginning play,” began one report. “This intimidates the other side and attracts huge piles of gate money. The promoters ought to make heaps of money.” Another wrote that the haka was “a ‘whoop’ in the vernacular which caused great excitement.”

The haka became an entrenched feature of All Blacks teams – initially on overseas tours, and from 1987 onwards at all matches, whether home or away. The 1905 All Blacks were the first official NZRU team to tour Britain, and their Ka Mate haka proved to be hugely popular.

It became so ingrained that Northern winter that subsequent tours from the other (former) colonies were expected to have and perform their “native cry” too. The 1906 Springboks had a Zulu-infused battle-shout, and two years later both the Wallabies and Kangaroos arrived armed with their Aboriginal inspired versions too.

“No touring Australian or New Zealand team would consider its repertoire complete without the theatrical display that precedes each game,” wrote Sydney’s Sunday Times, before adding “though no one would claim that it does any good, other than provide the comic element.”

In the wake of regular cross-Tasman visits of New Zealand teams, many club and rep teams in Australia were already indulging in the war cry mania, but to suggest any had a comparable cultural basis to that of the haka would be going too far.

The Queensland Reds had for a time “emitted some meaningless jargon” based on towns and places that began with “Woolloongabba! Woolloongabba!” This triggered waggish suggestions that NSW should reply with “Wagga Wagga, Murrumbidgee, Yass! Yass! Yass!” Thankfully the Waratahs left that alone, but the craze got too much for them on a 1901 tour, startling everyone with a Maori war cry before a match against Wanganui.

The fashion spread to the few Rugby clubs in the Australian rules football states, particularly in the gold rush towns of Western Australia. Visiting Perth in 1896, the Coolgardie Rugby team received little more than blank stares from onlookers after calling out “Rick! Dick! Ricketty Dick! Houshta! Houshta! Hay!”

Australian rules clubs remained immune to the war cry trend, apart from at the 1908 national carnival in Melbourne, where the NSW, Queensland and New Zealand teams each in turn amused the MCG regulars. “If the Queenslanders did not later on show much proficiency in football,” declared the Argus, “they at any rate carried off the palm in the war cries, their effort being dramatic, descriptive and interesting.”

The most bizarre war cry came with the 1910 visit to Sydney of the USA Rugby team. Made up of Rugby players from Californian universities, they adopted Stanford’s traditional “Big Game” football rally call of “Give ‘em the axe! Where? Right in the neck, the neck, the neck!”

The 1908 British Lions team toured New Zealand and NSW with a short-lived war cry of “Rule Britannia! Cymru am byth! Hip! Hip! Hurrah!”

When the New Zealanders performed their Ka Mate haka before “a full house” at the SCG in 1907, “a mighty roar went up from 50,000 throats,” shouting “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” in reply to the All Blacks challenge.

Eighteen months earlier at Cardiff, the Welsh team responded to the haka by singing “Land of My Fathers,” with the vast, swaying crowd in their thousands joining in, giving birth to another Rugby Test match tradition (the singing of national songs).

Reverence for the war cries of Australia’s first national teams in the Rugby codes is harder to find. Both bare traces of legitimate Aboriginal origins, but at best they were composed pieces rather than a cultural feature of “the Illawarra tribe” (Wallabies) and “the once dreaded Stradbroke blacks” (Kangaroos).

Herbert Moran, captain of the 1908 Wallabies, wanted nothing to do with his team’s ritual. He saw the haka justified as “after all it was in Maori tradition,” but he had no time for the Wallabies tribal dance, writing in 1939:

“The memory of that war cry provokes anger in me even after all these years. We were officially expected to leap up in the air and make foolish gestures which somebody thought Australian natives might have used in similar circumstances. It had box-office value – the people in England expected it, but as soon as the business was over, some of us rushed to hide our heads in the first available scrum.”

Wallabies 1908 tour

At Cardiff against the local XV, while Moran and his Wallabies were giving their ‘dance’, the ‘blue and blacks’ captain Welsh international Percy Bush, “stood opposite them with a real old sword and buckler in an attitude of defiance, his gestures provoking laughter”.  

The Wallabies and the Springboks quickly gave up their comical war cries, but the Kangaroos, finding it forever popular with the English and French fans, kept the pantomime up for decades. The ‘Roos war cry came finally to an end in France in 1967.

Though far from being ridiculed, the All Blacks haka too was not performed with any vigour nor real understanding by the players either. It too appeared likely to fade away.

It wasn’t until Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, a fiercely proud Maori, assumed the All Blacks captaincy in 1987 that the war cry entered a new era; one of real cultural significance. Shelford famously demanded of his All Blacks team mates to “Do it f**king right, or don’t do it all!”

Undeniably, the New Zealanders have since made the delivery of the haka and its meaning so prominent, and well understood, that a new tradition has emerged – one where rival players and opposing teams often feel compelled to confront the All Blacks custom with something more than the passive response of the past.


WALLABIES WAR CRY (Wallaby Tours of 1908 & 1912)

Gau Gau [add opponent’s name and the venue]
Whir-r-r! Win-nang-a lang (Thur)
Bu rang-a-lang (Yang)
Yai!Yai! Gun-yil-lang-yang-yah!
Greetings to [opponent] in [place]
You are great men We are pleased to meet you
We think we can beat you
Come! Let us try!
[Note: The translation above is for information – the war-cry was not performed in English]

© Sean Fagan.