Rugby legend John Eales has never forgiven himself for leading the Wallabies in turning their backs on the All Blacks while they were performing the Haka in Wellington more than 20 years ago.
New Zealanders remember it as the greatest sign of disrespect – right up there in the bad sportsmanship stakes with the Chappells’ cricket underarm bowling decision − even though the All Blacks thrashed the Wallabies afterwards, 43-6.
And for Eales, it was the low point of his illustrious career.
“I had many great moments with the Wallabies. I led the team that won the World Cup, but not facing the Haka was my biggest regret,” he said in John Eales Reveals: The Haka that screened on the Discovery Channel on Sunday.
Watch the moment Australia ignored the Haka below:
It’s a painful, brave story, following Eales “on the road to redemption” for that cultural insult by learning more about the Haka and, therefore, why his action caused such a storm.
“We tried to detract from the power of the haka but we ended up losing more from ourselves,” Eales said.
It started with gentle criticism from his mother Rose.
“I didn’t want you as captain, our son, to be in that position. It wasn’t the done thing. I wondered what the All Blacks thought of it,” she told him.
Eales sought the opinion of the Wallabies on the field with him that day and some of them were scathing.
George Gregan, for example, called it “a poor decision from the Wallaby team that day”.
Peter FitzSimons deemed it “embarrassing”.
Eales travelled around New Zealand under the tutelage of legendary All Black, Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford. He is credited as taking the Haka from a token effort to a full-on cultural statement back in the 1980s.
Eales learned that Ka Mate – the Haka most used by the All Blacks – was just one form of Haka. Chief Te Rauparaha wrote it to say that no matter how bad everything looks around you, you can beat it. Never give up.
Haka is a uniting cultural force for the All Blacks and Eales noted, with sadness, that, despite 40,000 years of indigenous culture in Australia, there’s nothing similar for the Wallabies.
Eales did meet with some of the All Blacks who were on the field that day.
One of them, Ian Jones, pulled no punches.
“You were the skip. What the hell were you thinking? You’ve got to accept the challenge if you want to beat us. We were all pretty edgy, pretty angry. You turned your back on us.”
Coach’s idea, but skipper did not speak up
Eales explained it was a decision by the then-coach Greg Smith in an effort to defuse the Haka’s power – but said he didn’t speak out against it and he should have.
His deepest sadness was that he wasn’t able to talk to the late great All Black Jonah Lomu about how he felt on the day and he visited Lomu’s grave to pay his respects.
Afterwards, Eales said: “Death brings finality but not resolution. Part of me died that day in 1996 and I’ll never know what Jonah thought. At least I had the chance to say goodbye.”
So, at the end of it all, did Eales get his redemption?
“I’ll never feel at ease with what we did but I feel more at peace with myself.”