When I was just five years old, I was already doing the haka in the mirror by myself. Whacking my legs, whacking my chest — I probably wasn’t doing it all that accurately but I was giving it all I had.
When you grow up in New Zealand, it’s ingrained in you from a very young age that rugby is much more than a sport — it’s our sport. Rugby is often compared to a religion in our country, but that may be cutting it short. Religious people may waver in their faith from time to time, but New Zealand’s passion for rugby is truly constant.
Some of my fondest memories growing up were when I used to wake up at 3 in the morning with my Dad to watch the team play games over in Europe or South Africa. There was no chance we would miss it. There is such a history and legacy surrounding the All Blacks that the standards couldn’t be any higher. An entire country stops what they’re doing to watch this team play, and the expectation is that they will win every single match.
It was difficult to fathom that I would someday have the privilege of wearing the All Blacks jersey. Our national rugby team is one of our greatest sources of pride, and its consistent success over the decades has been remarkable. In its history, the team has won more than 75 percent of its matches against international competition, scoring 13,921 points while only conceding 6,793 points against. I come from a small town in New Zealand that hasn’t produced many national players, so the idea of playing even one game for the All Blacks almost seemed like a fantasy.
I still remember the nerves I had before my first game for the national team. The reality of representing this beautiful country in the thing they’re most passionate about was a lot to take in. In short, I didn’t want to stuff it up.
It was 2003 and I was only 21-years-old. We were playing against Wales, and I remember running out into the stadium in Hamilton, New Zealand and being greeted by this amazing crowd. Standing on the field and singing the national anthem was a very emotional experience, but what probably stands out most from that day was being involved in my first haka.
The haka is an ancient Māori war cry that’s performed by the All Blacks before every match begins, and as you can see, it’s quite a display:
It’s a ritual that I absolutely love. It may look like an intense cheer, but being on the team taught me a lot more about the meaning behind the haka. It’s a very spiritual practice that involves bringing energy up from the ground. There’s so much history behind these motions, every New Zealander can perform it. And I guess it goes without saying that it gets you pretty pumped up for the game — so much so, that after I perform the haka, I always have to go to the sidelines and try to calm myself down a bit. The position I play, fly-half, is somewhat similar to playing quarterback in American football. I have to make all the calls and thus need to have a very clear head so I can know who will be where at what time.
That being said, I try to make sure the big boys in the scrum get as worked up as possible during the haka.
To perform the haka for the first time was such a rush. I snuck to the back because I was so nervous, but over the years I’ve worked my way up and now I’m at the front. We won that first game, and I never looked back.
People unfamiliar with the sport probably think rugby is a very violent and brutal game, and in some respects that’s true — and I have the scars to back it up.
I’ve ruptured an Achilles as well as my Adductor muscle. I’ve broken my fibula, several injuries to my calves, hamstrings and ribs. I’ve dislocated both of my shoulders and have also had a couple of ankle surgeries. And there are the little things, like broken bones in your hands and busted up fingers.
The human body is an amazing thing and you very much push it to the boundaries in this sport. I’ll have a few reasons to be sore when I hang up my boots.
However, and I know this may sound bizarre given what you just read, but something about rugby brings out the gentleman in its participants.
Yes, for 80 minutes, the game is like a war. At the highest-level the game is played with so much speed that it often results in very big collisions. But it’s really after the match ends that you get to see the true nature of the sport. After more than an hour of bludgeoning each other, it’s tradition for rugby players to visit the opponent’s locker room to have a beer and share a laugh. The bitterness and aggression fans see during the match is ultimately left on the field.
Those friendships you develop with your opponents over the years last forever. Some of my good friends are guys I love to hit. Once the whistle blows, they’re my best mates. They’re people you can connect with on a deeper level. We all realize that our window to play the game is limited, but these bonds are what will last for the rest of our lives. After the game is over, all we’ll have are these memories that we share.
As I near the end of my career, it’s been very emotional. Rugby has given me so much. The last 12 years have just been such an amazing ride. Part of being a member of the All Blacks means that you’re a role model to kids — when I was growing up, the guys on the team were who I looked up to. It’s something you can’t shy away from, so it’s important in everything you do to keep that in mind. You get a lot of autograph requests, but it’s never overbearing. I remember being on the other end of it when I was just a kid who would have done anything to get the attention of my favorite players.
My main focus now is inspiring the next generation of New Zealanders to pursue their passion. I want them to find that thing that drives them and truly chase it regardless of the odds. I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to experience the happiness I’ve enjoyed throughout my career.
In some parts of the world, rugby is still very much out of the mainstream. But I think there is much about the sport that can be appreciated by any culture. Its ability to combine brutality with grace, intellect and sportsmanship is not just remarkable, it’s important. My greatest hope is that more people find this beautiful sport that showcases many of humanity’s best qualities.