'White men can't dance': Why Sir Buck Shelford changed the All Blacks haka

By Jessica Tyson

Sir Wayne 'Buck' Shelford is one of the most successful All Blacks captains but what cemented him as one of the greats was how he transformed the haka Ka Mate.

When Shelford became captain in 1987, the All Blacks had been performing the haka but in a way that showed little understanding or training.

“Either we all do it and do it well or we don’t do it at all. That’s how it sat with me,” Shelford says.

With the support of fellow player Hika Reid, Shelford taught the importance of correctly learning the tikanga, words and actions.

“We had to start off practising. Oh, well. White boys can’t dance ae. Two left feet and trying get them to get a beat was pretty hard,” Shelford says.

“You know, the Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora. They were trying to sing it. It’s not a waiata, a song. It’s a haka. You’ve got to chant the haka.”

That year the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup and every game during Shelford’s captaincy from 1987 to 1990.

In the 2021 Queen's Birthday Honours Shelford was knighted for his services to rugby and the community.

But beating cancer in 2007 has been his most triumphant battle.

“After my journey in cancer in 2007 I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of material on men’s health.  That’s when I started with men’s health in a bigger way. That’s why I ended up with the Prostate Cancer Society as an ambassador and I’m still with them today. That’s 14 years later. I love going out there talking to our men.”

It has since become Shelford’s mission to help men look after their mental well-being.

“When you see so many young people today committing whakamōmori (suicide), it’s really sad. It shouldn’t be like this. Men don’t show emotion. I go to tangi all the time, and you rarely see males crying at tangi and funerals. Men don’t cry and women do. Men don’t show emotions, they talk about it briefly and that’s it.”

He says whakamōmori has happened in his own whānau.

“I know that quite a few nephews in our extended family who have actually committed it and sailors in the military who have committed it as well. It’s not an easy subject to talk about but we’ve got to start talking about it and understand why they are doing it and what the catalyst is. We’ve got to dig deep.”

Shelford appeared on the very special TE NGĀKAU TAPATAHI, a show profiling our Maori dames and Knights. The new series from the Māori Television newsroom premieres weekdays from Monday 17 January at 12.00 PM. The first five episodes will be available on Māori+ from Sunday 16 January and the full series available from Sunday 23 January.

Helping groups:

  • Lifeline 0800 543 354
  • Suicide Crisis Help Line 0508 828 865
  • Healthline 0800 611 116
  • Key to Life 0800 2 KORERO
  • Youthline 0800 376 633