WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand rugby league bosses have criticised Australia's "disrespectful" response to the traditional haka pre-match challenge after it almost sparked an all-in brawl at a junior international in Auckland.
The Junior Kangaroos linked arms and advanced as their New Zealand counterparts performed the ritual ahead of the match on Sunday, resulting in what Brisbane's Courier-Mail newspaper described as "one of the most aggressive hakas of all time".
The under-20s players were literally nose-to-nose and shoving each other as officials scrambled to defuse the situation.
New Zealand Rugby League president Howie Tamati said he was disappointed at the response to the traditional Maori challenge.
"In regard to the actions of the Australian boys to walk up and get in the New Zealand boys' faces, that was really provocative and disrespectful," he told Fairfax New Zealand.
He said the haka was an expression of cultural pride, "not a situation where you're looking to fight".
The Junior Kiwis had the last laugh when they won the match 15-14.
The most famous exponents of the haka are rugby union's All Blacks, whose opponents have tried various methods of responding to it.
In 1989, Ireland captain Willie Anderson linked arms with his team-mates at Landsdowne Road and led them forward so they were eyeball-to-eyeball with the All Blacks, before going on to lose 23-6.
Australia turned their backs to the haka during a 1996 Bledisloe Cup clash in Wellington and were downed 43-6.
In recent years, the International Rugby Board has ruled that the team facing the haka must stay at least 10 metres from the halfway line The haka is traditionally only performed by men, and British pop group The Spice Girls were labelled culturally insensitive in 1997 when they did an impromptu version during a concert in Bali.
A New Zealand bakery chain also came under fire for a 2007 commercial featuring animated gingerbread men with squeaky voices performing the haka.