Yet again the All Blacks show their superior rugby skills by blending brute force, or brutes’ force, with swift, dashing runs and daring tackles. And, although their on-field charges; their power in the scrum, and their handling of the ball are truly dazzling, most memorable is the pre-match ‘haka‘ when the players call upon their ancient Maori gods to help them gain victory.
Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora! ’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!
Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora! ‘Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!
Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru This is the hairy man
Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā Who brought the sun & caused it to shine
Ā, upane! ka upane! A step upward, another step upward
Ā, upane, ka upane, A step upward, another step upward!
Whiti te ra! The Sun shines!
Which team does not invoke their gods before, or during, matches? Just as Homeric heros relied upon the gods of Olympus to help them win battles, these days whole stadiums, with tens of thousands of raised voices, sing out to the gods in seeking supernatural assistance for their teams. The cultural form may be different, but the purpose is the same. ‘How great thou art’, is a favourite song of supplication for Welsh rugby supporters who really know how to belt out a good hymn in the stands – as in the church on sundays. Here’s another one: Bread of heaven – A Welsh haka, with all voices joined.
But then, there’s the national anthem singing, with hearts and lungs raised to invoke the ‘National spirit’ – a re-ification, and sanctification of national and cultural identity. This is the time for serious flag waving and earnest mascot displaying; offerings for the re-ified ‘national gods’. In response, blessings are received as the national spirit infuses a team spirit into the players; including such qualities as comraderie, courage, strength and skill.
The match now begins and fifteen players furiously battle against fifteen players. Many receive bloodied noses, even bruised and broken bones, to overcome and vanquish the opposing side. Metaphorically, or perhaps not, together they are fighting the enemy. In stretching the metaphor still further: They are fighting a hunted beast- like a group of paleolithic hunters attacking a bison. Herein lies the essence of rugby – if not of all team sports: A group of men (or women!) working together armed with cunning and force; fighting for survival by throwing themselves into the melée; ready to be trampled upon, kicked and mauled. Pushing bodies and souls beyond the limits they take on specific roles, and signal to each other with signs and shouts, amid the tumult of the struggle, to overcome and win the chase. To me, rugby represents this raw, vibrant, battling nature of sport more than most. It’s certainly not a delicate game!
Yes, in watching rugby, I see our pre-historic, archaic homo sapien ancestors stalking, hunting, and fighting woolly mammoths or bison in deadly duels of kill or be killed. And looking at some particular rugby players, the pre-historic ressemblence is quite apparent! See these two!
Pre-historic ancestor or rugby player?
In fact, going back millions of years in time, such primordial hunting instincts were probably carried out by our primate ancestors. Evidence of this is suggested by watching modern days chimpanzees chasing and catching their preys, whereby individual chimps take on specific roles and all closely operate together. Watch here!
Returning to prehistoric homo sapiens hunters – quite possibly they also performed some type of ‘haka‘ to call upon their gods for protection and success. Archaic homo sapiens, probably. Neanderthal man, perhaps not. They hadn’t intellectually advanced that far. Nevertheless, it certainly was a dangerous activity and one in which injuries frequently led to loss of life. Broken bones put one at a distinct disadvantage in the day-to-day struggles for survival, and if your tribes-folk cared not for your injuries, you were easy prey for the wolves.
The way to survive, of course, was to operate in a carefully managed team of hunting experts. In such ‘teams’, all knew exactly their roles and all acted within a collective team ‘consciousness’ (‘spirit’) – being inherently aware of what their hunting-team mates were doing. To achieve this took a higher degree of mental social skills and technical knowledge than earlier hominid ancestors, including Neanderthal man, had acquired. In fact, without such advanced skills, Neanderthal man had an exceedingly tough time and hunting success came from pitting himself against the hunted beast with only the most basic of hunting weapons, and a very large reliance on good luck. No wonder they died out!
In fact, recent fossil studies of neanderthal man have compared their ancient fossilized bones with those bones of modern day rodeo stars (see here). It appears that broken bones incurred through pre-historic hunting, are very similar to bones broken by rodeo stars. Hence parallels in the two activities have naturally been formed: ‘Hunting involved dangerously close contact with large prey animals’. This is true for both pre-historic hunting and rodeo. Both are battles between man and beast, and both involve teams of men working closely, in harmony, together. The only difference is that rodeo is a sport and the pre-historic hunting is a fight for survival – getting meat for the clan. Archaic homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthal man and learnt more hunting tricks. But life was still hard for them when out on a hunt, and injuries suffered could likewise prove fatal.
No, I’m not a fan of hunting or rodeo. For me, they’re activities relating to humankind’s chthonic past and are anachronistic in today’s world. Lovers of gore who attend bullfights, dog fights, cock fights etc. for an adrenaline buzz, are experiencing sentiments of the past. Perhaps there are emotional remnants, such as the thrill of the hunt, the capture and the kill, remaining in our genetic make-up. But releasing such sentiments is more humane when channelled through organized and rule regulated sports. Learning self-control is essential for any hunter or sportsman alike. Hence, I wholly enjoy watching sports players freely engage in sporting combats against each other; be it tennis, badminton or football. Thankfully, Caligua and the Roman arena, where slaves were trained to fight to the death and Christians were thrown to the lions for fun, have long disappeared – It’s just a shame that fighting with animals still exists. As a caption with the image below says:
Each time the corrida goes ahead, humanity regresses.
Yes, these days we try to get our kicks in more humanitarian ways – without losing the excitement. We’ve discovered the balance, and one such balance is rugby.
So – when I watch rugby, I see pre-historic man on the hunt. It’s brutal and viscious, yet highly-skilled and highly-trained. It’s a game of quick-thinking chess-like moves with spontaneous reflex reactions. But it’s also a scrap of knees and elbows, fists and feet. There’s flaying arms, grunts and groans, sweaty armpits, and pumping, piston-engine legs. And there’s the blood-stained faces and bandaged heads. But that’s rugby and that’s a pre-historic hunt. Yes, it’s a little barbaric – but it’s also carefully controlled by a referee. The result is a merging of nature and culture; the wild and the tamed; the raw and the cooked.