Turning his back on the haka in 1996 is rugby great John Eales' greatest regret
In Wellington in 1996, the Australian rugby team turned their backs on the All Blacks' haka, focusing on their own warm-ups instead of their opponents' fearsome traditional challenge. The All Blacks responded by thrashing Australia 43-6.
For Wallabies great John Eales, the episode remains the biggest regret of his career. Though the decision to ignore the haka was made by team management, Eales thinks that as captain he should have opposed it.
"I've certainly felt for a long time that it wasn't right, what we did," Eales says. "I know other guys in the team did as well and we got a lot of criticism and when you get that sort of criticism it's hard not to take it personally.
"I've thought about it a lot over the years. You look back at certain things in your life and think 'Oh, I wish I didn't do that.' "
In his new documentary, John Eales Reveals: The Haka, Eales returns to New Zealand to learn more about the history and modern significance of the haka and to travel his own personal "road to redemption".
He quickly discovers that the haka, the traditional Maori war dance or challenge, is more deeply woven into the fabric of New Zealand society than he had imagined, helping to bind New Zealanders of all ethnic backgrounds. Sporting teams have their own hakas, as do military regiments. Children learn hakas in school – and, as the documentary shows, even the sight of a class full of eight-year-olds performing a haka can be a formidable one.
"That was very, very powerful," Eales says of the schoolkids. "You realise that these kids are learning from a very young age and they love it and they really understand what it means as well.
"I probably hadn't expected the depth of what it means to the population as a whole. I think it's a really powerful thing that they have in their society, and they've really grown that over the last 20 years."
Eales says the prominence of the haka in New Zealand life shows that New Zealand as a whole has embraced its Maori heritage more than Australia has embraced its Indigenous heritage.
"It would be very hard for us to manufacture something similar," he says.
Eales' guide on his journey is former All Blacks captain Wayne "Buck" Shelford, who helped mould the All Blacks' performance of the haka into the formidable display that it is today.
"It was great going through that process with him," Eales says. "He's a great guy. He's a Maori himself and he has a wonderful understanding of, and appreciation for, the Maori culture.
"And he's learning more about it himself – he grew up Maori but he's gone back to study the Maori language."
Along the way, Eales learns from many others, including "haka guru" and Maori cultural expert Inia Maxwell, and he faces a grilling from former All Blacks about the events of that chilly day in Wellington in 1996.
One particularly powerful moment for Eales was visiting the site where 200 years ago Maori chief Te Rauparaha composed the Ka Mate haka – the haka performed by the All Blacks – while contemplating the prospect of death at the hands of the enemies pursuing him.
"Being in the spot where the haka was conceived, if you like, where Te Rauparaha was underground and his would-be assailants on top of the ground – he could hear them running around looking for him – that was quite moving," Eales says. "If they had found him he would have been dead. He wouldn't have lived to tell the haka."
As for the power of the haka on the rugby field, Eales says the performance itself doesn't intimidate Test-level opponents. He says the advantage it does give the All Blacks is in connecting them to each other, to their shared history and to the task at hand.
And Eales says he hopes that the power of that connection will leave Australian viewers with plenty of food for thought.
"How can you, in your various walks of life – business or sport or even in your family unit and your extended family – build that deeper connection with the people that you're living and working with?" Eales asks.
"There's enormous power if you can do that."
WHAT John Eales Reveals: The Haka
WHEN Discovery Channel (Foxtel), Sunday, 7.30pm.