Arise Sir Buck! All Black who saved the haka knighted

·3-min read

All Blacks hardman Wayne 'Buck' Shelford -- the player credited with injecting the fear factor into New Zealand's pre-match haka and who once played on with a torn scrotum -- was awarded a knighthood Monday for services to rugby.

Shelford, a World Cup winner in 1987, was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's birthday honours list.

"It's huge. It was quite a surprise," the 63-year-old told AFP.

A powerful number eight, Shelford played 22 Tests, captaining New Zealand from late 1987 to 1990.

He went on to lead the All Blacks on a 14-Test unbeaten run.

His winning record would be enough to command the respect of All Blacks fans, but Shelford's legacy has been enhanced by two standout factors.

The first was the eye-watering courage displayed when he continued playing in a Test match against France in 1986, despite suffering horrific injuries, including a torn scrotum.

The second was Shelford's role in reviving the haka. As his knighthood citation says, the take-no-prisoners forward gave the famous challenge its "mana", a Maori word meaning prestige or gravitas.

While the All Blacks have performed a version of the "Ka Mate" haka since 1905, by the time Shelford first toured with the team in Argentina in 1985 it was considered a novelty that many players wanted to drop.

"It had been done quite poorly over the years... I talked to a lot of ex-All Blacks and a lot of them hated doing it, especially the European (white) boys," he said

"They didn't understand it. It wasn't theirs to do."

- 'Loved it' -

Fiercely proud of his Maori heritage, Shelford set about teaching his teammates the haka's cultural significance.

But only after he and fellow forward Hika Reid called a dressing room vote on whether to retain the pre-game ceremony.

"I said to Hika, we're not going to do it unless we get 100 percent buy-in. I'm not going to perform a haka alongside someone who doesn't want to do it," he said.

The result was the earth-shaking, thigh-slapping challenge we know today, performed by the All Blacks with such fire-breathing intensity before matches that some critics argue it gives them an unfair advantage.

"Once they started doing it well -- pronouncing the words right, getting the actions right, putting pride into it -- they loved it," Shelford said.

He was gratified to have helped forge a distinctly Maori ritual into a symbol of national identity embraced by New Zealanders of all backgrounds, with schools, cultural groups and numerous sports codes all performing their own version.

"It feels pretty special when you see it performed on the world stage at somewhere like the Olympics or a World Cup," he said.

- 'Battle of Nantes'-

Shelford said his proudest on-field achievement was being part of the team that won the first-ever World Cup on home soil in 1987 with a 29-9 win over France.

The victory was made sweeter by what had transpired the last time the teams had met eight months earlier in an infamous Test dubbed "The Battle of Nantes".

Les Blues, out to avenge a loss the week before, came out swinging and Shelford, renowned as the All Blacks' enforcer, found himself a marked man.

He lost four teeth and his scrotum was ripped open by a stray French boot, with Shelford insisting medics stitch him up on the sidelines then return him to the fray.

He eventually left the field with a concussion after being knocked out in the second half as France won 16-3.

"They beat us on the scoreboard, but they beat us up as well -- we lost a lot of mana that day," he said.

"We'd talked about it and we wanted the French in that (World Cup) final. We wanted to play an expansive brand of rugby that everyone would like and we did it, we pushed the kehua (ghost) off our shoulders from what happened in Nantes."

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