Rugby team sparks row in NZ after calling government ‘rednecks’ in haka | New Zealand

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A row over the role of protest in professional sport has erupted in New Zealand after a women’s rugby team called the coalition government “rednecks” during a pre-match haka.

The Hurricanes Poua – the women’s rugby union team for Wellington – added lyrics to their haka just before their Super Rugby Aupiki match against the Chiefs Manawa in Hamilton on Saturday.

The haka leader and prop, Leilani Perese, began the performance with the lyrics “karetao o te Kāwana kakī whero” or “puppets of the redneck government” before the team joined in to acknowledge various documents and movements that uphold Māori sovereignty.

Speaking to RNZ, Perese said she “strategically” presented the haka to the team’s management “at the last minute”, and hoped the new lyrics would send a strong message to the government.

“I felt very empowered, very excited, for this new addition into our haka,” Perese said, adding that her teammates were encouraging.

In its short time in power, the three-party coalition led by prime minister Christopher Luxon, has announced a repeal or review of at least a dozen policies that provide for Māori, in what it says is an attempt to improve outcomes for all New Zealanders.

This includes rolling back initiatives designed to improve Māori health outcomes, stopping “race-based” policies such as co-governance between Māori and the Crown, and minimising Māori language use in the public service.

The policy that has generated the most vocal opposition is a proposal from one party in the coalition to redefine the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi – New Zealand’s founding document – which includes the right to Māori autonomy and protection of Māori interests.

Perese, who is from Ngāpuhi, said she explained her concerns to her non-Māori teammates. “They understand the mamae [pain] we’re going through, the anger and frustration. They felt it too,” she said.

Perese believes that rugby players should be able to speak out. “Why not use our platform to show our people we will never fold? To tell the government that we are stronger than ever, and we will never go down without a war.”

Sports and recreation minister Chris Bishop dismissed the idea that the government was “redneck” and told the NZ Herald that while he disagreed with the message of the haka, the team was entitled to their view.

Deputy prime minister Winston Peters took a less conciliatory tone. “Perhaps if they focused more on tackling and catching the ball instead of expending all their energy performing a haka trying too hard to attack the government they may not have been thrashed so badly,” he wrote on X. The Chiefs Manawa beat the Hurricanes Poua 46 to 24.

David Seymour, leader of the Act party, which is behind the proposal to redefine the treaty, told press gallery reporters he defended the team’s right to free speech, but pushed back against people saying “stupid” things.

“All it shows is that the Hurricanes Poua know nothing about the colour of my neck,” Seymour said. “My pledge to them is more time on their moves and less time on calling me names and their politics.”

Hurricanes management has not yet responded to the Guardian’s request for comment, but its chief executive Avan Lee told local media he had been “blindsided” and an investigation was under way. The Hurricanes would apologise to government, he said.In a statement, New Zealand Rugby said it respected the right of professional players to express their personal views on a range of issues but that it expected them to do so in a “respectful and inclusive way”.

The performance has sparked debate in local media, with some commentators accusing the team of “misusing” their platform and attempting to divide the nation, and others saying it’s not surprising the team took a stance and that it was “heroic”.

New Zealand has a long tradition of protest and politics within sport – the most well-known example being the 1981 Springbok Tour, where South Africa’s national team travelled to New Zealand to play the All Blacks. The tour divided rugby supporters and prompted widespread – sometimes violent – protests by those opposing apartheid, including hundreds of protesters flooding a rugby field to halt a match.

Rugby commentator Alice Soper told the Guardian that keeping protest and sport separate denied the reality that politics affects every part of life.

“Political leaders are always trying to climb on sport platforms to communicate who they are and what they are about. Then they seem to be outraged when those people who have built the platform are wanting to do the same.”

Soper said the backlash over the haka highlights the enormous gap in cultural competency, which is particularly stark given how prevalent Māori players are within professional sport.

“We have taken the haka and put it into a commercial context, and stripped it of its cultural context – it was only a matter of time before Māori would like to recontextualise what this performance really is,” she said.

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