Anyone who’s ever seen the New Zealand All Blacks national rugby team play – or, failing that, seen the acclaimed Clint Eastwood film Invictus – knows how intimidating the haka war dance can be.
But history tells us the haka was used for more than just intimidating your enemies before a battle. The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand used the haka to welcome guests or mark moments of great occasion, such as funerals.
Such was the case Monday at Auckland’s Eden Park, where thousands gathered for the final public memorial of New Zealand rugby great Jonah Lomu.
Lomu died in Auckland last week at the age of 40. He suffered from the debilitating kidney illness Nephrotic syndrome for almost 20 years. The condition forced his early retirement from the game in 2007, three years after he underwent a kidney transplant in 2004.
Lomu is considered rugby’s first global superstar. He shares the world record for most tries in rugby World Cup tournaments (15) with South Africa’s Bryan Habana.
The memorial opened with a traditional haka performed by indigenous Maori representatives of Auckland’s Ngati Whatua people.
They were joined by ex-All Blacks players who gathered to pay their respects, as well as students from Wesley College, Lomu’s alma matter.
The combination war chant-dance is today most famously associated with the New Zealand All Blacks, who perform the ritual before their games in order to intimidate opponents and fire up their fans.
As the haka was underway, Lomu’s coffin was carried into the stadium by pallbearers including former All Blacks Michael Jones, Frank Bunce, Joeli Vidiri and Jerome Kaino, as well as New Zealand rugby league player Manu Vatuvei.
The coffin was followed by Lomu’s wife Nadene, who wore a woven skirt which is a traditional Tongan symbol of respect and mourning, and by Lomu’s sons Brayley, 6, and Dhyreille, 5.
Representatives of Lomu’s Tongan community were joined by others from Samoa, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tuvalu and Tokelau to remember a man they say put Pacific Islanders on the global map.
Former All Blacks coach John Hart spoke on behalf of Lomu’s wife and children, thanking mourners and expressing gratitude for the tributes that had poured in from around the world.
“It’s frightening to think what he could have done on the field had he not played with such a huge medical handbrake,” Hart said.
“He overcame tremendous hurdles throughout his life but never, ever complained. He was a fighter until the very end.”
-With files from the Associated Press