Haka the real challenge at Māori rugby league tournaments

By Herewini Waikato

A total of 38 teams from around the country and Australia have made their way to Rotorua to play in this year’s NZ Māori Rugby Leauge Tournament for Under 15s, Under 17s and Under 19-year-olds. 

But it’s not all about the sport.

This tournament has served as a springboard to developing these players in Te Reo Māori and Māori culture, with haka playing a big part in the competition, with judges and an award for best haka among all teams.

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It’s more than just a rugby league tournament, it’s a place to grow the Māori language and culture.

“The most important thing that comes to mind is that football is secondary and haka is primary,” haka senior judge Hemana Waaka says.

The jersey has mana

The first tournament was in 1993 in Wellington with a handful of teams and now there are 38 teams - and three judges for haka.

“Their job is to judge haka for its excitement and passion, actions and unity,” NZ Māori Rugby League director Titia Graham says.

From the haka the crowd will know their district, iwi and hapū, he says. "They show off their iwi affiliations and the jersey they wear represents their tribe and marae.

“It also states their haka in their tribe is alive, and also their Māori language,” Waaka says.

At this tournament the overall winning haka throughout all grades was taken by Taranaki Whanui, who took home the NZ Māori Rugby League Trophy for best hka 2022.

NRL star, Kiwi Adam Blair (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa) has always been keen on haka, “and what I have actually seen today, especially the more specific and the more passionate and not trying to drag out hakas are the ones that are the good ones”, he says.

Calling on ancestors

Rangatahi players Waikare Ratima from Rangitāne and Te Awa Daniela from Waikato acknowledged that haka was a way to strengthen the mind and body before playing the game. And they also saw it as a way to connect with their ancestors and to draw down their strength going into battle on the field.

Five Māori rugby league tournaments are held each year - tamariki, teina, kōtiro, rangatahi and tuakana. The haka is an integral part of all of the tournaments.

Graham says he is really excited because the tournament is growing and the NZ Māori Rugby League board is achieving the goals it set out, such as whanaungatanga, Te Reo, Ahurea and more tournaments, NRL pathways for players, coachs’ development, administration, and developing more Māori referees.

“We only had one tournament but now we have five. We are elated,” he says.

Graham and others will now prepare for the kōtiro tournament at the end of June in Rotorua.