Ravens need a haka, the Brumbies have one

Maori ritual being performed by Baltimore rugby club for visiting New Zealand team

November 07, 2013|Dan Rodricks

The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens have three wins and five losses; they just lost to the Cleveland Browns for the first time in seven seasons, and they play the conference-leading Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. So I'll say this: The home team could use a Maori haka right about now, and I know where to get one.

The Baltimore-Chesapeake Brumbies, the city's entry in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union, have been practicing the haka — the most famous pre-game ritual in the world — for the last seven weeks. They've been trained in this intimidating "war dance" — a misnomer, and I'll tell you why in a moment — by a newcomer to Baltimore, Dean Wharekura. He's a native New Zealander, a Maori who lives in Federal Hill with his wife, Kate Russell. He's been here since March. He's the assistant to the Brumbies' head coach, Steve Elliott.

Wharekura knows rugby, and he knows how to haka.

He grew up playing rugby in New Zealand and Australia. In his native country, near Rotorua, he played among the indigenous Maori for a team — "tribe" is the local term — called Whakarewarewa. "There's nothing like playing in a local Maori rugby conference to harden a person up," he says. After playing for years at an elite level, Wharekura hung up his cleats and turned to coaching.

"Ours has been a very tribal race since time immemorial," he says. "In our culture, when two tribes meet for a [rugby] match, you have to perform a welcome — a song, a chant, and a haka. The haka is not a war dance. People call it that. It's the word 'dance' we object to, because we do not dance. It's a posture exercise for the purpose of intimidating the opponent."

In ancient times, Moari warriors would stand outside an opposing tribe's village and state their intentions — with fierce facial expressions and confrontational gestures and poses. "It was an attempt to dominate the opponent mentally," Wharekura says.

Having been embraced by New Zealand rugby teams since the late 19th Century, the haka survives today. Players for the home team assemble near midfield, usually in three to five lines, facing their opponents and chanting expressions such as: "Prepare yourself! I die! I die! I live! I live! This is the hairy man who fetched the sun and caused it to shine again!"

If you haven't seen the YouTube video of the New Zealand national men's team, the All Blacks, doing the haka for their English opponents, please add your view of it to the 13.2 million already there. You will see why I suggested it for the Ravens. After all, Ray Lewis is gone and with him the dance that got everyone pumped. The team obviously misses him and the psychic energy from his pre-game ritual.

And we have this rugby team in Baltimore ready to haka.

"They are the most prepared white men ever to do a haka the way it is supposed to be done," Wharekura says proudly.

There's a reason why he has the Brumbies practiced in the tradition — the Maori All Blacks, a team of indigenous players, are on a North American tour. They play the U.S. national team in Philadelphia on Saturday. "When I heard about that," says Wharekura, "I wondered if anyone was doing a haka for them."

He learned that none of the opponents on the Maori All Blacks' schedule had planned the traditional welcome. So why not the Brumbies?

"This is, as far as I know, the first time the Maori All Blacks have been in this country and I felt that I'd better be the one to do it. I felt an obligation to do it."

And maybe Wharekura wanted to treat his Maori brothers the way the Brumbies have treated him since he joined the team in summer. "These guys have been so welcoming to me," he says. "I'm getting emotional. They made me feel so at-home in Baltimore, I wanted to include them."

So, in addition to practicing tackling and passing, the Brumbies have been doing the haka.

"We attracted a haka flash mob in Raleigh last weekend," Wharekura says. "We were there for a game, and the players were out to dinner, and it was a couple of days after Halloween, so we decided to do the haka right there, in the street, and there were hundreds of people, maybe a few thousand watching. ... So, yes, we're prepared."

If all goes according to plan, the Brumbies will board a bus in Baltimore Thursday morning and travel to Neumann University outside Philadelphia to perform their welcoming haka at an All Blacks practice. Then they'll come back to town and, on Saturday at 1 p.m., play a game against the Pittsburgh Harlequins at Bocek Field in East Baltimore.

As far as I know, they're free on Sunday if the Ravens want the haka.


Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is host of "Midday" on WYPR radio.

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