Haka vs. Sipi Tau: Rugby World Cup dance-off

When Steve Hansen named the bundle of rugby riches he called the All Blacks World Cup squad, New Zealand's pool fixture with Tonga in Newcastle on Friday lost a sliver of its abundant intrigue.

There was no space in the squad for Wasps-bound Charles Piutau. Despite being in flying form, the full-back and winger was denied not only the opportunity to play against the country of both his parents' birth and the country he represented at under-20 level, but also to play against his big brother, Siale Piutau. As it is, tricky family decisions about who to back at St James' Park have been averted. Red's the colour.

Beyond the Piutaus, though, the squads are linked: Malakai Fekitoa is the ninth All Blacks player born in Tonga (a number more, such as Doug Howlett, had Tongan heritage), while a number of Siale's team-mates -- such as star winger Telusa Veainu -- were also born in New Zealand.

In the pre-match proceedings, however, lies another source of curiosity and linkage: it will be the tournament's only fixture with two of what World Rugby rather euphemistically calls "cultural challenges". So the haka, arguably the game's and certainly a nation's most iconic global symbol, meets the Tongan Sipi Tau, for the third time in World Cup history.

The haka has been transformed from jig to juggernaut and it's not just players of Maori extraction who get all pumped up.

Why do they get so fired up? Is it the honour of being an All Black or a nod to Maori forefathers and Kiwi culture? ESPN asked two of the haka's foremost figures, Piri Weepu and Buck Shelford, this question. Weepu suggested the former, Shelford the latter.

Indeed everyone's had their say on it, with Justin Marshall memorably giving an insight into the All Blacks' psyche, saying "it's all about us, not them", and TJ Perenara saying his greatest ambition in rugby was to lead the haka.

It has a fair list of recent controversies, from the introduction of the throat-slitting Kapa O Pango in 2005, Brian O'Driscoll's so-called "insult" and subsequent punishment that same year, to advancing Frenchmen in 2007, and the All Blacks refusing to leave the changing rooms in Cardiff a year earlier. In every way, the haka is a big deal.

We know less of the Sipi Tau. It's all a bit different, according to Siale Piutau, who admits that, growing up in New Zealand, he knew the haka first.

"The Sipi Tau has always changed in terms of the lyrics," he tells ESPN. "It's not universal like the haka, where all teams use Ka Mate everywhere. For Tonga, it's always been different hakas used before games; ones that have been made up at the last minute and changed slightly all the time.

"What ends up happening is that management will say, 'Oh, we don't want these words in the haka, can you adjust it a bit?' It's still a war dance but most of it is just declaring God's strength over Tonga and repeating the motto of Tonga, which is 'Guard in Tonga my inheritance'. Then as a team we just have to adjust the words to suit our goals at the time.

"It really does pump you up, screaming at the top of the lungs and seeing the guys opposite you just standing there. At the same time, it can go against teams; you can lose your focus and get so wrapped up in the emotion of it. Come kick-off time, someone can do something silly and everyone's not on the same page. We're still trying to work out what we can do after the Sipi Tau to make sure everyone is calm and ready to go. It's key to get the emotion out of things."

The two occasions on which the haka has met the Sipi Tau at the Rugby World Cup have been memorable. The first, at a packed out Suncorp Stadium in 2003, was spectacular. Carlos Spencer got the All Blacks going, Kees Meeuws' eyes bulged, and the camera panned round, where the Tongans were underway. The haka came to a close and the Sipi Tau continued, with the Tongans advancing to the halfway line and beyond. Pure theatre.

Four years ago, Piutau recalls, it was rather different. At Eden Park, both sides stood in formation, but Tonga, as the allotted home team in the fixture, were required to go first; it was then up to the All Blacks to decide when they began the haka. After much pre-match hype on the subject, the All Blacks -- who by this point were strident in their belief that the haka would be the final act before kick-off -- waited until the Sipi Tau had ended to begin a pumped up challenge led by Weepu and with Ali Williams' eyes bulging. This arrangement rather suited television and tournament directors on the event's opening night.

"I think for the island nations because it's a war dance you pretty much expect to do it at the same time," says Piutau. "It's a face-off. I think now when the All Blacks do it to nations that don't have a haka, they accept it and take the challenge that way. We were thinking they would do it at the same time, but they stood there and accepted the Sipi Tau and so we stood there and accepted the challenge from the haka. It's great drama."

Tonga are the designated home team in Newcastle, and they expect the same arrangement. Either way, in a packed-out St James' Park, it's set to be spectacular.