What leading the haka means to TJ Perenara

The All Blacks are renowned for the haka across the sporting world but for the man who will lead Ka Mate and Kapo O Pango in Japan, it's the connection with the land, his ancestors and teammates that's important rather than putting on a show for the crowd.

Steve Hansen's men have already been welcomed to the Rugby World Cup with two separate hakas performed by local Japanese children, first on their arrival at the team hotel in Kashiwa and then again ahead of a training run in the lead-up to Saturday's crunch clash with the Springboks.

It's obvious the All Blacks will be a clear drawcard for the tournament, just as they are whenever they travel, and that many supporters will be hanging out for the pre-match haka performance perhaps more-so than the game itself.

But having led haka for more than three years now, TJ Perenara remains focused on ensuring the All Blacks remember why they do it and that it is always done to it absolute best.

"Haka for me is about connecting with the land, connecting with my ancestors and my brothers that are next to me," Perenara told ESPN ahead of the tournament. "A lot of people see haka as a threat to the opposition, a challenge to the opposition, and I guess some people might do haka that way.

"But for me personally, haka is about connections and making sure that we are connected with my ancestors, the people who went before me, connected with the land that I'm currently on and then connecting with my brothers that I'm going to war with."

Perenara's rise to haka leader for the All Blacks began from the moment he was born, his Maori heritage making him the clear choice to take over from Aaron Smith when his fellow scrum-half had been involved in an off-field indiscretion.

"I'm just Maori, I grew up Maori," Perenara said. "It's not something that was ever discussed or I had to get education on, it's just how my family is and it is who I am as a person and its heritage I'm proud of. It's heritage I try and enhance and pay my respects to.

"The haka is something that I grew up with. It' something that I am passionate about, it's something I'm proud of, too. I know not everyone grows up with haka and it's foreign to some people, but for me it was normal seeing haka performed; it was something that was common for me and something that I was deeply proud of."

Perenara revealed this week that he is learning to speak te reo Maori so he can one day pass the language onto his children having not had the opportunity to learn it himself growing up. Perenara told a podcast with fellow All Blacks teammate that his grandfather and great grandfather would get into trouble for speaking te reo Maori, and it slowly faded from prominence within his family as a result.

"Coming to the realisation that things happened in the past that got to the point where te reo Maori wasn't taught in my family, that's not on me," he said. "But I have the opportunity now and the responsibility to be able to make the decision... That's the journey that I'm on now. I want to go and learn my language because when Greer and I have kids, I want to gift them the language of te reo Maori."

While he always dreamt of playing Test rugby and leading the haka himself, Perenara's earliest memory of the All Blacks was of heartbreak and one that left a lasting impact on the 59-Test halfback.

"Earliest All Blacks memory is probably George Gregan knocking the ball out of Jeff Wilson's hands in [1994] Bledisloe Cup Test. It probably inspired me for a couple of reasons; one because we lost the Bledisloe Cup and I saw the hurt in my family's eyes, it meant a lot more to my parents than it did to me at the time because I was just a young kid, but to see how gutted they were I thought I want to be a part of making my parents feel good about the Bledisloe Cup.

"And probably secondly, George Gregan, he's a smaller dude who had such an impact on the game, and I was always a smaller dude growing up and I thought if he can do something that big and that impactful in a game of rugby then it gives me hope."

Twenty-two years after Gregan's match-winning tackle, Perenara would lead his first haka for the All Blacks, against the Pumas in Argentina, following in the footsteps of his father who had done the same thing for New Zealand's national men's softball team, the Black Sox.

Perenara's mother, Fiona, joked shortly after that Test that she couldn't "give a stuff about the rugby ... I was incredibly proud [of the haka]."

The expectation of friends and family back in Titati Bay in Wellington and the responsibility Perenara has to make them proud is forever at the forefront of the 27-year-old's mind.

"I know each and every time I lead haka there's a lot of people who don't care how I really play the game, but if I get haka wrong that's the important bit or that's a massive part of what a lot of my people are watching and hopefully I do it proud," he told ESPN.

"It's important that we do haka well, it's important why we remember we do haka and how haka is done, because if we just tick the box on it, we show people who are growing up wanting to be All Blacks that haka doesn't have to be done in a certain way. We need to hold haka in high regard and make sure that if we're going to do it, we do it properly."