Former All Black captain Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford is still celebrated as the leader who revitalised the haka as a key part of the All Blacks’ brand and performance.

In 1985 Buck and Hika Reid were asked to coach the team to improve the haka performance. Improvement was needed. Just asking wasn’t enough to get Buck’s support: 

“No way I was going to teach them if they didn’t want to practice and didn’t do it properly. Hika grew up on haka and I found it in my teens. In the military I’d learned from my haka tutors not to teach guys if they weren’t going to do it properly and weren’t going to train. It was all about making sure we didn’t embarrass ourselves in front the world and in front of our own Māori people”.

There was a massive improvement in the All Blacks’ haka performance. But in those days it was only performed at overseas games. In 1987 millions cheered as the spine-tingling revitalised haka, led by Wayne Shelford kicked off the final against France.

“Since ’85 when we brought it back the All Blacks have their own haka and haka itself has become much more widely known and used in schools and in the exponential growth of Māori performing arts – kapahaka - festivals such as Matatini.

And Buck has a challenge: “Many can do kapahaka but not speak. You can see now the All Blacks they are really enjoying it – and with kapahaka comes the language. I think well, if you can learn a haka you can learn the reo.

And he walks the talk: Buck’s Māori-speaking father spoke English to his children, and he wasn’t taught at school. So as an adult he began night classes with the teaching organisation Te Ataarangi and went on to do a full year’s immersion at Te Wānanga o Raukawa.

Now, he can speak with his kāumatua (elders) but finds it hard to find opportunities to use the language in the Pākehā circles he moves in. But he feels Pākehā are missing out too: he looks forward to the day when Pākehā performers of the haka develop an in-depth understanding “they can do it well but they still don’t know a lot about the spiritual side – the mana, the ihi, the wehi. We Māori carry our kaitiaki on our shoulders – sometimes they don’t get it.

“The first thing people say to you overseas about New Zealand is ‘All Blacks’ and when they know you are one the next thing they say is ‘haka’. They love it. It’s a symbol that our culture is alive and well.  Haka and Te Reo Maori are symbols of national identity.

Young Maori people live in both worlds but Pākehā live in a Pākehā world – that’s why we need te reo Māori in the schools. If it’s going to be an official language we should all be talking it!

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