Warriors who don't really need a war-cry

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Since the English hooker Richard Cockerill attempted to turn the All Blacks' ritual Maori war dance into a gentlemen's excuse-me at Old Trafford last weekend, serious misgivings have been expressed about the place of this quaint New Zealand custom in the serious business that international rugby union has become.

The haka, it is argued, has progressed from being a harmless ritual that has been an integral part of the touring baggage of the All Blacks for a century and now represents an act of unacceptable intimidation of opponents already psyched up to the eyeballs by the pressure of facing the world's most feared team.

Cockerill, whose demeanour by no means suggested a man over-awed by the prospect, and a few of his team-mates decided to apply some haka-puncture on the grounds: "Why should we just stand there and let them get an adrenalin rush off it? Why can't we take something from it as well?"

They are not the first to try to hi-jack some second-hand belligerence in this way. The Irish once advanced on the haka in a menacing phalanx and the Welsh are among other teams who have been known to stare them out with unblinking eyes and square-set jaws. But the only time that New Zealand have thought of restricting its appearance was when the Australians starting blowing kisses at their dancing rivals. Not to take it seriously would seem to have been the favoured policy. David Campese took advantage of the lull to practise his kicking. Jonathan Davies used to try keeping the ball up with his feet while it was on, believing that the only activity worth bothering about didn't occur until after the whistle - and then you wanted cool brains and not hot heads.

In contrast, Bob Dwyer who coached the Australians to World Cup success over New Zealand in 1991 believes the haka has become confrontational and that it gives them a distinct psychological edge. I would have thought the All Blacks' record was such that the last thing they needed was an extra edge.

Spectators surely regard it as part of the appeal of the All Blacks. It is just about the only remaining rugby activity in which players jump without being lifted. Certainly, it is far more attractive than the average ruck and carries far less mystique.

One of my earliest recollections of watching rugby in Wales is of being impressed by the touring New Zealanders; not just by the way they represented the ultimate in opposition but how they prefaced each performance with this fascinating glimpse of a faraway culture.

Looking back now on the oppressive atmospheres they would have faced at Welsh club grounds and at the Arms Park, the haka would have been more of a defensive act, carrying more comfort for them than threat to others. Come to think of it, if there was a machine able to measure psychological surges the haka would have registered a reading way below that of the Welsh national anthem when Arms Park throats were in their prime.

No one cares to talk of the advantage that generations of Welsh teams might have derived from their crowds - we're praying for the acoustic purity of the new stadium - or what a skirl of bag-pipes can do to the morale of the Scots. The English, unfortunately, are not favoured with any traditional means of inspiration. Pre-kick-off Morris dancing wouldn't provide much of a stir within a heart of oak - although the sticks might come in handy once the game started - and if there was any lesson for the England team to learn at Old Trafford it was how much the Twickenham crowd have been short-changing them through the years.

The fact that the haka has been suddenly subjected to this examination after being part of the scene for so long may be explained by one of the obsessions that have overtaken rugby since the arrival of professionalism. The rush to flood the clubs with new players has been accompanied by a strong current of new coaches, directors of rugby, fitness advisers and assorted witchdoctors some of whom claim to know how the sporting mind works, or should work. All sports at one time or another have been through the same process. When you've dragged the last ounce out of the bodies, see if there's any slack in the brain. There's much to be said about the importance of concentration, determination and the focusing on clear targets but other sports have had longer to absorb the lessons worth learning.

What now passes as big-time rugby hasn't had time to draw breath to deal adequately with what is happening both on and off the field and even the most experienced are jumping at shadows. I'm sure that the psychological properties of the haka wouldn't be regarded as so sinister if the All Blacks weren't so good at the game. The popular Tongans are at present touring the country and no one complains at their version of a pre-match war-dance.

Whatever else the haka does, it does not explain the All Blacks' domination of the world. We should just accept it as a declaration that they mean business. As if we needed to be reminded.

The BBC don't get much right in the attempt to hang on to their sporting heritage but they're proving very successful in preserving their reputation for great snooker coverage. Helped by a brave decision by the game's leaders to reject a multi-million pounds attempt from BSkyB to buy the world championship for the next 10 years, the Beeb are keeping faith with the green baize and the UK Championships, which reach their climax today, are providing riveting viewing.

Snooker doesn't have the high profile it once enjoyed. It has ceased to be trendy and the reason given is that the game lacks the personalities of old. This is tabloid-speak for the absence of players who beat up officials, sniff cocaine, chase birds and drink 20 pints of lager a day.

It there's any devilment in the present lot, they manage to keep it a secret. Most of them look as fit as whippets and they are as pleasant and interesting to listen to as they are to watch. I've been transfixed by every frame I've seen over the past week and my colleague Clive Everton claims that the standard has never been higher. Most of them are very young compared to the average age of, say, 15 or 10 years ago and as the products of that snooker boom they have been dedicated to the professional game for a long time. They are in danger of being the best ever adverts for a misspent youth.

More than a few breakfast splutters would have greeted the publication of the top 25 footballers admitted to the new International Hall of Fame. The top five had been released on Thursday and there would have been few dissenters. But on Friday the list of the next 20 names did not go down at all well and two top football writers slated it. Not least among the anomalies was the name of Kenny Dalglish at No 10 above Stanley Matthews, Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Tom Finney and Duncan Edwards.

Astonishingly, we now learn that the list was published alphabetically and not in order of choice as it should have been. The real order can be found on page 15 but it remains contentious. How can John Charles be as low as 16. Dalglish is now at 17 - but he's still above Tom Finney. This one will run and run.

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