I’ve watched pretty much wall-to-wall rugby over the last nine weeks crowning that ‘achievement’ with the World Cup Final – a spectacle featuring the top two rugby nations in the World namely New Zealand and Australia. No real game can be watched without the obligatory pre-match build up. Here, so called ‘experts’, become hostages to fortune with outrageous claims of what is likely to happen and why. There is a universal phenomenon that occurs at this time. Despite being selected for their expertise, presumably based on their substantial knowledge of the game and their objective assessments, they throw all sense out the window opting for comments based, not on the years of expertise honed from playing and observing the game, but rather from some form of softish xenophobia.
Rugby is a brutish game; arguably the most ruggedly physical sport of them all. But is also, too, a game of great tactics where the muscle between the cauliflowered ears is often more useful than the size of one’s quads. When the pre-match experts make their comments, it is the former rather than the latter that they are opining. The age-old desire to out-muscle the opponent surely harks back to some Darwinian instinct that tells us if we can be the strongest we will attract the best mating partner. It’s old playground stuff. I’m bigger than you and if clearly I’m not then my Dad is bigger than your Dad.
What we know from the World Cup Final is that brains will almost always prevail over brawn. The ‘back three’ loose forwards of Australia were acknowledged by the press almost universally (except probably in New Zealand) as being the dominant force in the world game. ‘Foocock’ as the collective noun became (an abbreviated version of Pocock*, Hooper and Fardy) were seen as just having more muscle than the rest. The constant close-ups of Pocock’s twin-barrelled black eyes and references to this warrior dogged determination were testament to the fact that, yes, our Aussie (Australian) genes are …well frankly… better than yours. As it turned out New Zealand, a nation allegedly full of rugged men and nervous sheep, simply out-thunk us. They played a game that nullified the potency of the brawn. Clever!
The other aspect of the pre-match build up that interested me was much more specific. There was a discussion about the power of the Haka (the New Zealand ‘war dance’ done traditionally before kick-off which is a cultural under-pinning of New Zealand indigenous Maori population). Much has been written in the UK press about the special treatment afforded the All Blacks (NZ) in allowing them to perform the Haka and that it gives them an unfair advantage. On paper this would seem like a petty thing but to stand in front of the haka with a group of hardened warriors challenging you to ‘war’ is as intimidating a spectre as you will find in world sport. Added to this, it both fires up those doing the Haka and dilutes any excess of adrenalin which at the beginning of a match streams through the veins and can cause early handling errors. So maybe then it is a bit unfair.
Perhaps the better question the UK press should have posed is what special indigenous ‘ceremony’ each nation should be allowed to do to make it an equal playing field? In fact the All Blacks are not the only nation to perform such a ceremony. Other Pacific Islands have their own variation of a haka and these are performed without any rancour from the press (most probably because these minnow nations don’t pose a threat to the established order of rugby). To their credit the pre-match panellists from Australia stood firm in support of the Haka for their trans-Tasman rivals. They even lamented the fact that they had no such equivalent.
Australia has an indigenous population, many of whom have graced Wallaby (Australian) teams over the years including the current one. Our First Australians have dance and war dance every bit, one would have thought, as intimidating as the Haka. The fact is NZ uses the Haka because it speaks to NZ culture. This is where NZ differs from many other nations. The Haka, derived from Maori culture is now intrinsically part of NZ culture and not sectioned off for the indigenous only to be wheeled out for the wider world for visiting dignitaries etc. Everyone knows a haka, including the nation’s most common one used prior to rugby games. It is not only a war cry. The Haka is an expression of a nation’s pride, happiness, or sadness. It speaks to the mana (soul) of its iwi (people). New Zealanders know this, accept it and embrace it. Other nations could learn from this. Rugby runs through the veins of New Zealanders whereas in other nations (with the exception of Pacific Island nations and Wales) it runs through the blue-blood. Perhaps therein lies the strength of NZ rugby. They truly take their nation with them. There is a spiritual, or soul aspect that is missing from the way many other nations play the game.
So in giving away NZ’s secret ingredient to prolonged rugby success, we must ponder how other nations can level the playing field. Can I suggest England needs a Morris dance before the kick-off. Scotland can do some Highland reels and Ireland some twinkle-toed Irish dancing à la Michael Flatley. As for other nations, the Welsh included, the onus is on them to discover or re-discover the absolute joy of dance and bring this to bear to intimidate and stir in equal measure.
And so to how we can apply these learnings to the world of business? Well let me just say that many hours without sleep doesn’t make for the best judgement when making decisions. Perhaps when challenged at work by a colleague, or competitor, the Haka – while tempting – is not the best response when under pressure!
*The irony here is that David Pocock is indeed a thinking man, despite the size of his ‘guns’. His support of issues relating to Australian refugee policy, his stance on homophobia in rugby and his thesis about the structural violence of capitalism set him above the ‘scrum’ as it were.