Throughout much of its seven-year history, the only spectacle on display at BMO Field has been of the sorry variety as regular tenant, Toronto FC, continues to find new and increasingly novel ways to drag devotees through bad soccer, bad management and bad tastes in their mouths.
That all changed on Sunday, however, as an altogether different kind of spectacle unfolded in front of a North American rugby-record crowd of 22,556.
With some still finding their seats before kickoff, the New Zealand Maori All Blacks took to the field en masse, banding together in a circle before breaking into the shape of spearhead, advancing in an aggressive and intimidating manner toward the Canadian players standing motionless on the halfway line.
But while the haka – a traditional war dance which recounts the Maori view of creation – is used to awaken the fighting spirit of the warrior and challenge the opposition, it is also a chance to show fans a small sampling of Maori culture.
“I think you got a bit of a taste of it in the haka,” said the Maori All Black captain, Tim Bateman, before leading his team to a comfortable 40-15 victory. “We talk about having ihi [power] and wihi [fear] and the way we release that through the haka, it really binds us together and it’s a big part of who we are, a big part of our culture and there’s a lot of meaning for us.”
It also carries significant meaning for rugby fans across the globe, and while it was made most famous by the reigning rugby World Cup champions, the New Zealand All Blacks, Pacific Island nations such as Fiji and Tonga also do their own version.
“It’s exciting,” said Canadian lock Tyler Ardron of facing up to the traditional war dance. “It just tells you a pinpoint time when that game’s going to start – they’re going to bring it and you’re going to have to match it.”
Unfortunately for Ardron and his teammates, Canada was unable to match the Maori over the full 80 minutes, with the New Zealanders turning the screw in the second half to pull away for the win and improving their record against Canada to 4-0.
Canadian head coach Kieran Crowley was frustrated by some of the handling mistakes and defensive errors.
However, the former World Cup-winning All Black admitted that his team, shorn of many stars unable to obtain release from their European clubs, was always going to be up against it.
“Look what you’re playing against,” he said afterward. “You’re playing against a New Zealand team that are all professional players and playing in Super 15 competition the majority of them and there’s some ex-All Blacks there, so you’re always going to have that pressure.
“A couple of times there if we’d got one more pass away or if we’d been a little more patient maybe we might have had them under a little bit of pressure but it wasn’t to be.”
Canada surprised many observers by taking the lead through Jeff Hassler within the first 10 minutes, but it was an uphill battle from then on. Winger Zac Guildford followed up his four tries against Canada in the 2011 World Cup by leveling the scores shortly after before Jamison Gibson-Park, playing scrum half after All Black veteran Piri Weepu pulled up lame in warmups, crossed for the first of his two tries on the day.
Canadian captain Aaron Carpenter gave the home fans a glimmer of hope with 20 minutes to play to narrow the disadvantage to 26-15, but late tries from substitutes Matt Proctor and then Nick Barrett ended the game as a contest.
Still, despite the lop-sided scoreline, the Maori captain admitted Canada ensured that the game was far from easy.
“Canada played really well, especially in that first 40 they shocked us with their style of attack,” Bateman said. “We expected them to be a little more narrow and brutal but they played with a lot of width and intensity and caught us off guard for a large part of the game.”