Rugby Union: Cockerill justifies his right to challenge the haka

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Richard Cockerill's defiant stance during the haka typified England's approach at Old Trafford on Saturday. After the match he continued to question the right of the All Blacks to throw down their ritual challenge unopposed, as he told David Llewellyn.

He is an Old English Gamecock. The Leicester and England hooker Richard Cockerill is a rooster who comes from rugby's hard yards. Cocky by nickname, cocky by nature, his brazen fronting up to his opposite number, Norm Hewitt, while the New Zealand hooker was heading the haka, typified the bulldog spirit of his whole game. Indeed of England's whole approach.

Cockerill's appearance during the disappointing draw with Australia last week had shored up a sagging front row. On Saturday, Cockerill's attitude at times seemed to bolster the whole side.

New Zealand may have been affronted by Cockerill's effrontery during their traditional pre-match ritual, but as the 26-year-old antiques restorer asked, not unreasonably: "Why should we just stand there and let them get an adrenalin rush off it [the haka]? Why can't we take something from it as well?"

Cockerill is only partially right when he says: "As far as I understand it, the haka is a war dance to lay down the challenge."

In fact, the haka is not a war dance, merely an episode from the life of the great Maori Chief, Te Rauparaha. And apparently there is an unwritten rule in world rugby that members of the opposition remain at a discreet distance from the All Blacks during the ritual. The idea is that the opposing teams face up to it impassively.

But in 1989 the New Zealand Rugby Football Union came close to dropping the haka except for special occasions after Australian players blew kisses during the chant; David Campese throughout his career used to practise his kicking behind the goal: "Seen one haka, seen 99" was his explanation.

While it would be a shame for the haka to disappear altogether, there is an element of intimidation to it. The prop Craig Dowd did appear to make contact with an England player at the end when the All Blacks make "the last upward step into the sun that shines".

It did not shine for them at Old Trafford, though. Cockerill and Darren Garforth, his fellow Tiger at tight-head prop, packed down solidly with Jason Leonard and withstood severe pressure from the New Zealand front three to provide a great platform for the rest of the pack and the England backs. On this performance Garforth, who only made his debut as a replacement against Wales last season, should be an automatic choice. So too should Cockerill.

"We were determined to give a good account of ourselves, to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in," the 5ft 10in, 15st 10lb Cockerill explained. "We believed we could win. We were mentally prepared. Our only thought was to take it to them. At this level it's about getting in the face of the opposition." No All Black dissenting voice at that. "It's not about being polite and letting them play. It's about doing what we want to do."

Cockerill insisted the confrontation at the haka was not premeditated. "Beforehand I wondered what we were going to do with the haka," he said. "But then we lined up and they were quite close to us. I just picked out Norm, being my opposite number, who was leading it, and what happened after that was just one of those off-the-cuff things. The haka is a challenge and we took that challenge. The crowd enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. All the boys enjoyed it." Maybe he does have a point after all.

THE HAKA: Inspiration drawn from a Maori Chief

Ka mate! Ka mate! It is death! It is death!

Ka ora! Ka ora! It is life! It is life!

Ka mate! Ka mate! It is death! It is death!

Ka ora! Ka ora! It is life! It is life!

Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru This is the hairy person

Nana nei i tiki mai, Who caused the sun to shine Whaka Whiti te ra!

Aue upane! One upward step! Aue kaupane! Another upward step!

Aue upane, kaupane One last upward step

Whiti te ra Into the sun that shines