Willie Mason appears to be out of the running for the 2006 Friend of New Zealand award after being perceived to “diss” the haka before the Tri-Nations rugby league match on the weekend.

His explanation that a) he wasn’t upset with the haka, per se, only that it was being performed by a non-Maori player who wasn’t born in New Zealand, and b) gee, he didn’t realise there might be a camera on him as he yelled obscenities, won’t help.

Dissing the haka is not new and former Australian rugby captain John Eales is one who regrets turning his back on the haka during his career.

Last June, the British and Irish Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll was gang spear-tackled by the All Blacks two minutes into a test, severely dislocating his right shoulder and ending his tour.

Why? O’Driscoll had tossed a blade of grass in the air post-haka, apparently making the All Blacks see red. He may have been testing the wind, or following the instructions emailed to him by “a Maori” explaining that, in war-times, picking up a blade of grass was the correct protocol for showing “friendship and respect” to the warriors. (First rule of international sport: don’t act on advice received in anonymous emails.)

That incident led to fierce debates about whether the haka was appropriate before highly-charged sporting events, and even led to the need for official haka approval for the All Blacks’ British tour.

Internet forums also ran riot, with one writer saying the traditional Anglo-Saxon response to the challenge was to “raise the index and middle fingers (a tradition started by the English archers)”. We wouldn’t suggest Mason try that one next time out.

It’s sad that the modern world is too serious and us-against-them to enjoy the haka for what it is. Note that in 1884, the first time a New Zealand rugby team was reported to have used the haka in New South Wales, it was accepted in good spirit: “The NSW men declared it was hardly fair of the visitors to frighten them out of their wits before the game began.”

Now? An Australian rugby league player screams the f-word across the park.

Maybe Mason would take less offence if the New Zealand sports teams performed alternative pre-match ditties, such as the popular Kiwi rugby tunes “My Old Man’s An All Black” or “Rugby, Racing and Beer”?

Peter Fray

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