Viewers and fans have often speculated as to why the traditional Ka Mate haka is performed over its newer counterpart Kapa O Pango.
Some say the more personalised Kapa O Pango is reserved for more highly-respected opponents while others claim the reverse is true and that Ka Mate is the preferred choice for the side’s biggest occasions.
However, Smith has blown those theories out of the water, revealing a starkly simple decision-making process for the haka on the Rugby Bricks podcast.
“It’s not as built up as people think. Obviously the haka is very special to the All Blacks but it’s not our priority,” he said as part of a lengthy interview.
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“The captain selects it, selects who to lead it. As we run out (to the Captain’s Run) he’ll say what haka we’re gonna do, ‘this week we’re gonna do Kapa O Pango’… or Ka Mate, it’s not in a meeting or anything, it’s just said then. And TJ [Perenara] goes around and says where you’re gonna stand.”
And it turns out there is one surefire way to predict when that captain will opt for the traditional Ka Mate haka.
“If new guys come in we practice it with them. So if we’re playing a first test and it’s some guy’s first game we’re not gonna do Kapa O Pango because we don’t need him scared about playing and scared of doing the haka, because it can be quite overwhelming.
“New Zealanders have all done Ka Mate when they’re drunk or as a kid… we’ve all done it at a party… we all know Ka Mate, but Kapa O Pango’s a whole other kettle of fish.”
That story largely checks out with Ka Mate performed every time a player has debuted in the side for the past two years, except for one occasion when Angus Ta’avao made his first appearance in black.
The haka has long been a controversial part of All Blacks culture with critics claiming it is overused, provides an unfair advantage, and has been commercialised by New Zealand Rugby.
Irish rugby writer Ewan McKenna listed all three of those factors in a column for Pundit Arena in September.
MacKenna said the haka had “been ruthlessly exploited and commercialised and ultimately cheapened.
The personal wealth of professional rugby players is widely misunderstood.
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“There’s a practical reason why the haka shouldn’t happen as, while it provides a psychological edge through self-inspiration and via an attempt at opponent intimidation, it also provides a small physical edge as others are forced to stand still and go briefly cold.”
The haka even has local objectors with former All Black Joe Karam believing it should be spared for special occasions.
“It’s become a PR, branding, money-making exercise as opposed to something which could add much more value if it was treated respectfully for particular occasions which could be the last game of a tour or perhaps the first game of the year or whatever it might be.
“Now the focus of the All Blacks appears to almost be more on the haka; they must spend hours and hours practising.”
However, Smith’s revelations put to bed the idea that the All Blacks spend too much time focusing on the haka.
“We do a lot of work at it early in the season and then we’re like ‘cool, we got this’. And you never forget it.”
Indeed, once the international season is underway, it is only rehearsed a single time before each test match and it’s not even a full-noise version – it’s actions only – as the players can get a little too pumped up if they perform it at 100 per cent.
“We do it at captain’s run… so it’s not like you go into a game and haven’t done it since last Saturday.
“Captain’s run day you practice everything you would do, pretty much, for a game. So warm-up, we’d go out, you’d have your own time, come do the haka, go straight into captain’s run, get a kick-off, exit.”
Plenty of critics have had their say on the haka in the past:
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