Hearing a blood-curdling scream while facing a lance and a Maori warrior was perhaps not what the Canada team expected in their official welcome ceremony in Waitangi. But in Northland's tropical hamlet, the site of the birthplace of modern New Zealand, such traditions are common for visiting dignitaries.
The Tangata Whenua, Waitangi’s local people, performed a welcoming ceremony for their visitors at the Waitangi National Trust Reserve on Monday. The Canucks approached the Waitangi Treaty House, from the seashore, pausing three times.
Each time, they picked up a frond, thrown down by a tattooed warrior swirling a taiaha (spear), to signal they came in peace.
It was difficult to know who was more intimidated by the ceremony. Warrior Isaiah Apiata was impressed with the rugby side.
“I was scared those guys were going to tackle me," he said. "They’re 10 times bigger than me."
Canadian captain Pat Riordan was equally impressed by the Maori display of manhood.
“I knew what was going to happen and it was very humbling, especially at such an important place in the nation’s history," he said. "The boys were slightly concerned for my safety. I can see in the past why people picked up the leaf instead of a fight."
The locals were not only receiving the rugby players, but also their ancestors. “We never travel alone,” Apiata explained. “We carry our deceased with us. So we not only welcomed the Canadians, but also the thousands of invisible people that they carry to us on their shoulders."
History and romance
En route to the ceremony site, the Canadians passed the location where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by British colonials representing Queen Victoria and Maori rangatira (chiefs) in 1840, heralding the formal beginning of New Zealand.
In keeping with the auspicious surrounds, the formal ceremony involved prayer, speeches by hosts and visitors, songs and frequent doses of Kiwi humour.
In the Maori tradition, National Trust dignitary Pita Paraone claimed Canada’s New Zealand-born coach Kieran Crowley as a cousin. “Unless, of course, you end up in the final against the All Blacks and take out the treasure, the Webb Ellis Cup. In which case, he won’t be my cousin anymore!”
Paraone also suggested the team’s arrival could lead to romance in the region. “What wonderful looking men we have here for the women of Waitangi, who have been keenly awaiting your arrival.”
Far North District mayor Wayne Brown concluded the ceremony and welcomed the team to the most beautiful area of New Zealand. “This side of Whangarei is the best," he said, in a good-natured dig at the attending Whangarei mayor. “Then you head to Whangarei and start getting into the lesser preferred part of New Zealand, the rest of the south."
The Canadians were a hit with locals, including schoolchildren from Opua Primary School, who had been granted a few hours leave from school.
Riordan said the Canadians had a lot in common with New Zealanders. “Canada was inhabited for thousands of years and the marriage of the First Nation and European was not amicable. We can relate."
Replying to a comment that the Canadian side was not very tall, coach Crowley was adamant this would not hurt the team’s prospects. “We might not be tall, but I’ll tell you right here and now, they have big hearts and will go on to do their country proud."