They stand before you, 15 very large, intimidating men, all dressed in black. Eyes fierce, they stare silently down on you, their prey.

Suddenly, the silence is broken. The man in the middle begins to roar...

“Kia whakata hoki au I ahau.
Hi aue, hi.
Ko aotearoa e ngunguru nei. 

Au! au! aue ha!”

As he spits out each syllable, the men around him spark into life. Eyes pop from sockets and tongues poke from mouths as they roar as one. Giant fists hammer thighs and crash hard against elbows. All the while their cries grow louder – and the fact we don't understand a word of what they are saying merely adds to its menace.

They draw fingers across throats to emphasise their point, and their battle cry reaches a crescendo...

“Kapa O Pango!
Ponga ra!
Kapa O Pango!
Aue hi!”

And with that, silence finally descends. The haka is over, but your problems have only just begun. These 15 men in black are now coming for you.

LIFE AND DEATH

Any player facing New Zealand in Rugby World Cup 2015 will experience all of the above. The Maori haka has been used for more than a century as a pre-match war dance by the nation’s rugby team. Many would argue that for all the beauty of New Zealand in full flow, witnessing their pre-match ritual has become an even bigger draw. Certainly, there is no sight in sport that can come close to matching its sense of drama and menace.

And yet the haka was not originally intended to intimidate. An expression of the passion, vigour and identity of the Maori people, it was originally devised as a celebration of life by a Maori warrior chief Te Rauparaha in 1820.

Pursued by a rival tribe, the desperate chief had concealed himself in a pit of sweet potatoes. His end seemed nigh. “Ka mate! Ka mate!" he muttered as his rivals drew close – It is death! It is death! But when they passed without discovering his hiding place, he muttered again, “Ka ora! Ka ora!” – It is life! It is life! He danced and sang in celebration and that day, the haka was born – ‘Ka Mate’, a celebration of life over death.


In subsequent years the haka took on a more terrifying tone, used by warring tribes to prepare for battle. Then, in 1888, during a tour by the New Zealand Natives, the players first performed ‘Ka Mate’ to their confused opponents, and the seeds of one of sport’s greatest tradition were sewn. Even so, for almost a full century the haka was not the spectacle it is today.

BAD OMENS


For decades the haka was simply a bit of fun. Poorly choreographed and performed with a smile and a laugh, it was often more like bad ‘dad dancing’ at a wedding disco than the dance of fearsome warriors. On other occasions, the haka wasn’t even performed at all. But then, in 1987, things got serious.

At the dawn of the inaugural Rugby World Cup, perhaps aware of his nation’s place in rugby’s pecking order, New Zealand captain Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford revamped the haka, injecting greater precision and intensity into the performance. He will have known that a haka not performed in total unison is considered a bad omen for battle.

By 2005, things intensified further when New Zealand unleashed ‘Kapa O Pango’ on their opponents and the world – a new haka that is now reserved, some claim, for their fiercest rivals. This new, longer haka was focused more on the national team, referring to the warriors in black and the silver fern on their shirt, but it drew complaints for featuring its controversial ‘throat-slitting’ gesture. New Zealand Rugby Union moved quickly to explain that the action was designed to symbolise the drawing of energy into the body, not symbolise their opponents' impending and very bloody demise. But this was of little comfort to the players facing the haka.

“The most terrified I have ever been on a rugby field was the night I faced New Zealand at Murrayfield in 2008,” confirms Thom Evans, a Coca-Cola ambassador for Rugby World Cup 2015. “You see them performing the haka on television and it’s obviously very intense. But it’s only when you’re out there, standing so close to them performing it that… I cannot even explain the feeling but it gives me chills just thinking about it. It was terrifying but inspiring too.”


RUN TO THE HILLS

Although the ‘Ka Mate’ lasts less than a minute, those 60 seconds can be hard to fill for New Zealand’s opponents. How to react when 15 vast warriors throw down a blood-curdling gauntlet, besides obviously running for the hills? Different nations have adopted different tactics, each an act of deliberate defiance.


For example, in 1996, Australia turned their backs and carried on warming up in their own half. In 2008, the Welsh players showed their disdain by standing with their arms locked, then stared down New Zealand and delayed the kick off. And in the Final of Rugby World Cup 2011, France linked arms and bravely (or stupidly) marched to within 10 metres of the war dancing Kiwis.

On each occasion, New Zealand won. So did the battle dance work? Perhaps, but only to a point. A battle cry and dance alone will never be enough. New Zealand’s Polynesian neighbours Fiji, Tonga and Samoa all have dances of their own – the Cibi (pronounced Thimbi), Sipi Tau and Siva Tau respectively – but they do not strike such fear in to the hearts and minds of their opponents the way a haka often can.

The truth is more likely that New Zealand are just very, very good and would likely win most matches anyway, with or without their haka. After all, their win ratio at Rugby World Cup is 86%.

“I think New Zealand’s success is down to a combination of the two elements,” laughs Aukland-based sports psychologist Sara Chatwin. “As a nation, New Zealand has produced some very skilled players and the haka only adds to the pressure other teams face when they play them. Of course it doesn’t make them invincible but it may give them an advantage over other teams. But I have to say, New Zealand hasn’t actually added to the whole mythologising of the Haka over the years – the rest of the world has done that for them.”

If that’s true, then the rest of the world has helped an already powerful opponent attain almost mythical status within the Game. What seems certain, as ever, is that whoever wins Rugby World Cup 2015 will need to beat New Zealand and their haka at some point along the way.

All we can do is to stand back and enjoy the show.

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This article was commissioned via NewsCred's NewsRoom and written by freelance contributor Nick Harper.