Why Are The All Blacks So Good?
The New Zealand Rugby team, known to one and all as the All Blacks, are the most successful sports team in history, across all sports. They have a better win ratio than Brazil in football or Australia in cricket. In their 125 year history they have won more than 75% of all their games. Why?
Why are they so good at the game of rugby?
This is a question many many people have asked, and a question that many have tried to answer. Most recently the Financial Times, that most serious and august of all newspapers, published an article by Jamie Smith with a title identical to the title I have used above. Like so many before him, Jamie tried to find the reason or reasons for New Zealand’s unbelievable success on the rugby field. (You can find Jamie’s article on the FT website.)
And like so many before him, Jamie has touched on some of the reasons, but still falls short of the whole story. He talks of culture, commitment, focus, roots, and national pride, but still seems to miss many of the additional factors that make New Zealand Rugby great.
I will not attempt to find the whole story either, I believe that it is probably even more complex than anyone could imagine. But I will try and add to Jamie Smith’s findings.
When the All Blacks play, their fans go to the stadium expecting their team to win. They do not go wondering if they will win, they go wondering by how much the All Blacks will win the game. This is probably the very core reason why the All Blacks are so very good at rugby. They, and their fans, expect them to win. This is an absolute confidence in their ability to play winning rugby.
Such high expectation arms a player with something beyond confidence. It gives them belief. They believe they will win. They know they will win.
Some might suggest that this self-belief borders on arrogance, yet anyone who has had any direct dealings with an All Black player or a member of the coaching staff will tell you that they are the most approachable, humble, friendly sportsmen in all the professional sporting world. They are open to talking about the game and the way they play to anyone who is interested enough to ask. They are a credit to the game and to their country.
Let’s begin our examination of the All Blacks with some numbers.
New Zealand’s talent pool is considerably smaller than many of their competitors. They only have some 250 professional rugby players in the whole country, and just on 150 000 rugby players registered at all levels of the game, male and female, and all ages.
Compare this to the number of players in England. Just the 12 Premiership clubs have something around 600 professional rugby players on their books. Each club has between 50 and 56 registered professional players. World Rugby tells us that England has 1 182 602 male players and 11 000 senior female players. They have 1900 clubs and 6060 referees.
Of course, not every player participating in English rugby is eligible to play for England, but the fact that they have over 600 000 teenaged male rugby players in England is already indicative of the disparity between the two countries. The feeder pool of potential future rugby talent is enormous. Much bigger than the pool New Zealand must draw from.
Oddly, according to a New Zealand Sport study conducted in 2013/14, rugby is not the most played team sport in New Zealand, soccer has far more participants. What is, however, an absolute truth in that rugby draws the most talented athletes, the rest play football!
Having established that the talent pool is smaller than most of their competitors, we need to look at where that talent comes from and how they develop that talent.
Perhaps the ideal place to start our investigation is to look at the place that rugby has in New Zealand society.
We need to start our investigation right down at the grass roots level of the game. Rugby plays an elemental role in the national life of New Zealand. There is a cultural dedication to rugby not found or even hinted at elsewhere in the world. Rugby is part of being a New Zealander, it is part of the national identity.
There is a rugby club in almost every small town, just about every news bulletin carries a rugby story or two, there are newspapers and magazines dedicated to rugby and nothing else, there is even a television channel dedicated to school rugby. Rugby is on free-to-air television rather than on subscriber television services. It is available to everyone. Rugby is infused into almost every aspect of a New Zealander’s life. New Zealanders are knowledgeable about the game, they respect the traditions of the game, and they are proud of their team.
The first ingredient in producing a rugby nation that punches well above its weight is the national identity and cultural foundation that rugby provides in society.
The second ingredient is the source of all that raw rugby talent, the schools system.
School-level rugby in New Zealand is really serious business. As I mentioned above, more kids play soccer than rugby, but those with talent inevitably gravitate to rugby. Rugby attracts the natural sportsmen and women.
New Zealand is also happy to welcome immigrants into their school rugby systems. Top New Zealand schools frequently send scouts to the Pacific Islands such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji armed with lucrative scholarships to tempt talented children to relocate to New Zealand. Sometimes their entire family migrates to New Zealand. Even if they are not offered a scholarship, ambitious young players will travel to the country to take part in various rugby trials in search of a scholarship.
New Zealand also has a large immigrant community from the Pacific Islands living in New Zealand which already provide a steady stream of players.
The Pacific Islanders are welcomed into New Zealand society and provide New Zealand rugby with immigrants and second or third generationers who are massively enthusiastic about the game, and who have a certain biological tendency to muscularity and strength. Whilst nobody has researched the impact of genetic influences on the physical, mental, and psychological strength of New Zealand rugby players, it is evident that the genetics introduced from the Islands have certainly improved the breed! Think of Jonah Lomu, Julian Savea and his brother Ardie…
Internal recruitment, together with judicious recruitment outside the country provides New Zealand with a conveyor belt feed of talented youngsters infused with the ethos of the game.
A critical component of the New Zealand schools system is that leagues and competitions are structured on a weight basis and not on an age grouping basis. This means that the 45kg Under Twelves do not have to tackle the 80kg freak Jonah Lomu lookalikes. Kids grow up competing on an equal basis with kids of a similar strength to weight ratio. Slow developers are not left behind. The bigger kid has no advantage on the field and must work at developing his skills rather than using muscularity and a weight advantage to succeed.
The third ingredient towards producing a winning All Black team begins within the schools’ system and progresses throughout the junior levels of the game and right up to the senior and national levels too. New Zealand nurtures and develops some of the finest rugby coaches in the world, and it begins down at the grass roots of the game. Right down at the children’s level of the game you find former professionals and top level amateurs coaching the game. The level of coaching in New Zealand is truly amazing.
Just think about some of the New Zealand coaches that earn a living outside the country. Joe Schmidt, Vern Cotter, Warren Gatland…..
To produce high quality coaches requires a commitment from both the potential coaches and, especially, the rugby administration at all levels of the game. Coaches are nurtured and developed, trained and evaluated at every level of the game. The New Zealand Rugby Union provides training courses and facilities from Beginner Players (Called the Small Blacks Course) through Teenage Coaching, Provincial Age-Grade Coaches, National Age-Grade Coaches, Secondary School Coaches, Club Coaches, Senior Club Coaches, Provincial Senior Coaches, Super Rugby Coaches, and All Blacks Coaches.
This training structure is supported at the Provincial level by additional coaching courses and clinics!
The very first benefit of this centralized bottom-up approach is that every single coach is steeped in the New Zealand rugby ethos. They are trained in a way that engenders a commonality of purpose. They adopt the same roles, systems, principles of play, skill identification and development, team development systems, mental skills training, and even physical preparation systems.
This commonality of purpose means that the New Zealand rugby coaches are focused on coaching the national style of rugby at every level of the game. Obviously, there are variations in game plans, but the overall style is the same in every area of New Zealand.
Once a rugby coach has gone through the basic levels of training, the ongoing development of the coach is not neglected. Courses continue right up to a course for national coaches, Yes! There is a training course for All Black coaches!
An Advanced Coaching Course is run by the Super Rugby franchises and includes stuff like functional role analysis, team culture, physical preparation and nutrition, applied individual skills training, advanced continuity skills, sport psychology and much more.
Once again, commonality of purpose and a certain commonality of style is enhanced, even at this high level of the game.
There is even the NZRU/Massey University Certificate in Coaching (Rugby), a formal qualification for coaches.
“If you don’t produce good coaches, then you won’t produce good players,” said Steve Tew, the chief executive of New Zealand Rugby, “You need great coaches to produce great players. The coaches have to come first.”
“Our system is all about sharing information between the different levels — schools, provincial and Super Rugby clubs — to ensure the All Blacks are the best and keep winning.”
That is ingredient Number Three in producing a winning All Black team.
ingredient Four is a focus on absolute mastery of the basic skills of the game. All through the entire playing structure of New Zealand rugby there is a constant focus on mastering the basic skills. Even the All Black squad itself dedicates training sessions to practicing the fundamental skills of the game to absolute mastery.
Basic skills are practiced at every level of the game. School break-times are a mass of touch rugby games, kids tackling each other with little restraint, and ball skills, ball skills, and more ball skills.
Once a player moves into the professional game the focus on basic skills never lets up. The Chiefs are known for practicing offloads for 45 minutes twice a week! Just offloads, nothing else! The skills are honed and honed to a level of instinctive play.
Ever wondered why a prop can catch and pass a ball better than most backs in other parts of the world?
ingredient Five is one of the most important steps in achieving a national winning culture. At every level of the game innovation is encouraged, nurtured and developed.
New Zealand rugby has always had a history of executing innovative tactics. Think about the early days of Super Rugby when the Auckland Blues adopted the game plan of scoring more tries than the opponent, without too much bother if the opponent scores, as long as they scored more tries than the opponent.
Think of the New Zealand rucking systems of the mid-20th century, think of the preference for running the ball out from within the 22 as opposed to the more conservative kicking for touch strategy. Think of the instant counterattack on kick receipt, think of the hand-to-hand movements amongst the forwards, shifting the ball from one carrier to the next in a constant process. Think of Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden’s chip kicks to their wings….
There is always something new, something different, something unexpected coming out of New Zealand rugby ranks.
This innovative culture is massively supported by the commonality of coaching and skills development at all levels. If everyone has the same level of skill and a similar game plan, it requires a new idea, a new tactic, a new approach to put one past your opponent.
ingredient Six: The high level of internal competition at every level of the game.
New Zealanders do not believe in “everyone is a winner” and “certificates for participation” just for pitching up at the rugger field. They do not believe in nurturing mediocrity. They believe in healthy competition and reward for winning.
And they couple that competitive environment to a nurturing approach. If you are good enough at one level, you are immediately encouraged to move on to the next level. This creates a pathway to success for the players and, importantly, for rugby as a whole.
ingredient Seven is one the entire world should take note of. New Zealand rugby nurtures a culture of humility.
This is an aspect of New Zealand rugby that is often neglected when outsiders discuss their winning ways. The ethos of personal humility is entrenched at every level of the game. It begins in the All Black change room!
The All Black team takes responsibility for cleaning up the change room after a practice or a game! No matter who you are, you stop and clean up after yourself! Some call it “Sweeping the Shed” but it is a critical component in keeping the players humble. They do not expect someone else to clean up behind them.
Humility is at the core of All Black culture. The All Blacks believe that it’s impossible to achieve stratospheric success without having your feet planted firmly on the ground.
New Zealand players accept that there is always someone else ready to knock you out of your spot in the team or provide something extra which will make the team better. They will not sulk about it if they are dropped. They will work out how they are going improve their game and get back into the team.
This culture of humility is helped by New Zealand’s prevailing egalitarian culture. Nobody is too good to be dropped. Nobody is too good to do the chores. Nobody is better than anyone else.
The All Black team also operates what players refer to as a “no dickheads” policy, which ensures troublemakers or overinflated egos do not last long on the squad. If your ego gets too big, you will not survive in the All Black team.
They talk of “Following the Spearhead” in the All Black team. In Maori, whanau means ‘extended family’. It’s symbolised by the spearhead. For a spear, or a family, to be effective all of its force must move in one direction. Hence “No Dickheads!”
By getting the team dynamic right from the outset, the “All Black family” develops a sharing culture and relationship amongst players. Research suggests that one of the key determinants of success within team sports is “collective experience” and nobody does this better than the All Blacks.
The All Blacks select on character as well as talent, which means some of New Zealand’s most promising players never pull on the black jersey – if they show too much ego and self interest, they are considered dickheads, their inclusion would be detrimental to the whanau, detrimental to the family that is the All Blacks.
“I know people who have been taken off the All Blacks’ list, even if they are the best player in their position, when their attitude wasn’t right,” says Neil Sorensen, general manager at New Zealand Rugby, who has worked at the governing body since 2001.
“There are a bunch of unwritten rules within the game at all levels that are drilled into our kids from a young age — it’s about sportsmanship, respect for the game and the opposition”.
The responsibility to maintain the highest standards rests with the team members themselves. No one in the All Blacks set-up is more important than the players — and that includes Steve Hansen, the coach. It was reported as recently as last month that Steve Hansen was chastised by a senior player for arriving at a team meeting a few minutes late. “In our cornerstone philosophies, the team towers above the individual. You will never succeed on your own but you will be successful as an individual if the team functions well.”
So far we have spoken of seven required ingredients towards producing that winning All Black team. And we are not finished yet!
An eighth, vital, ingredient of the national team’s success lies in the history, traditions and ethos of the All Blacks.
Richie McCaw says that the national team’s culture of success helps to maintain grassroots interest in rugby.
“I think you have to look back at the early days of New Zealand rugby to find answers,” says McCaw. “There was the Originals team [the first New Zealand team to tour outside Australasia] who managed to get one over the mother country in the early 1900s, which was quite a big thing. I think that is what started the All Black psyche. We have such a history of success and the players nowadays do not want to let that legacy down.”
The Originals tour to Britain in 1905-06 is chronicled at the New Zealand Museum of Rugby in Palmerston North. Old photographs and memorabilia show how a New Zealand team led by Dave Gallaher, an Irish migrant who served in the Boer war, won 34 of their 35 matches. They only lost to Wales, by the narrow margin of 3-0.
The All Blacks went unbeaten on a subsequent British tour in 1924-25, earning the name the “Invincibles”.
Stephen Berg, director of the museum, says such emphatic overseas victories helped cement rugby as the dominant sport among the settler communities across New Zealand. “Rugby initially provided a reason for the settlers in New Zealand to get together and socialise. The physicality of the sport suited the farmers, who arrived to settle the land, and Maori,” he says. “The fact rugby was played by everyone in New Zealand helped it to spread quickly and become the dominant sport whereas in England rugby remained an upper-class sport and was overtaken by soccer.”
One of the most important traditions of the All Blacks is encompassed in a team slogan: “Leave the Jersey in a Better Place”. The current players have the task of representing all those who have come before them – from George Nepia to Colin Meads, Michael Jones to Jonah Lomu, and all those who will follow in their footsteps.
An All Black is, by definition, a role model to schoolchildren across New Zealand.
Understanding this responsibility creates a compelling sense of higher purpose.
Integral to this tradition is the belief that “Champions Do Extra” a philosophy that simply means finding incremental ways to do more – in the gym, on the field, or for the team. And if you do extra, you will leave that jersey in a better place.
We now move on to ingredient Nine. The New Zealand Rugby Union itself.
New Zealand Rugby maintains an iron grip on the game at all levels, from schools through club rugby to provincial rugby, Super rugby, and on to national representative rugby. This allows the Union to prioritize the success of the national team above all else.
Players are centrally contracted and thus “owned” by New Zealand Rugby and not by a franchise or province.
In contrast, clubs in Australia, England and France are often privately owned, a situation that has, at times, led to disputes between national unions and clubs over how star players are managed and utilized. Most recently we have seen the ugly spat over in Australia where the national union has agreed with SANZAAR that they will dispense with one Super Rugby team, to the instant chagrin of the Players Union and the various franchises who are taking legal action to ensure that they are not dropped from the competition.
Central contracting would have resolved that issue without tears. Players could quickly be reallocated to another franchise and carried on with their careers.
New Zealand Rugby has also made the decision not to select anyone who is playing overseas for the All Blacks. This rule, coupled to central contracting, has kept the best players at home, strengthening domestic rugby competitions, and ensuring that the individual players aren’t playing too many games and arriving for matches ill-prepared or suffering from jet lag.
Ben Smith, the All Black vice-captain, recently turned down a massive offer to play for a club in France. He said the lure of the All Black jersey and the opportunity to play against the Lions kept him in New Zealand.
Sir Brian Lochore, former All Black captain and coach says “Our centralized approach, which focused on the national team, gave us a head start.”
“All Black success breeds success for rugby at all levels in New Zealand,” he says. “I think we handled the transition from amateur to the professional era of rugby very well and certainly much better than the home nation unions, who in some cases were dragged kicking and screaming to professionalism.”
The New Zealand Rugby Union has one focus, the All Blacks. Everything else is subordinate to the All Blacks. Coaching systems, domestic competitions, contracting systems, player development processes, recruitment drives, everything is focused on producing top quality players for the All Blacks.
Internal politics, petty squabbling, nepotism, power struggles, personal agendas are all left at the door, and that is perhaps the single component that makes New Zealand Rugby the strongest in the world.
The Tenth ingredient that makes New Zealand Rugby so strong is a mixture of belief, psychology, and focus. It is the intangible things that come from within each player, nurtured and focused through all the components I mentioned earlier, and through all phases of a player’s career.
The first aspect is belief. It is every single young rugby player’s uncompromising belief that he will become an All Black if he works hard enough. It is the uncompromising belief that the All Blacks will win every game. This belief translates into that confidence, that winning belief that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This is the belief in each individual All Black that gives the player confidence, to push harder than they ever thought possible. They have uncompromising confidence in themselves and the players around them.
A second aspect is in the ability to focus on the big picture and exclude the background noise that could distract them from their objective. They call it “Keeping a Blue Head.”
Following their arguably premature exit at the 2003 World Cup, the All Blacks worked with forensic psychiatrist Ceri Evans to understand how the brain works under pressure. They wanted to overcome their habit of choking. He introduced the concept of Red Head and Blue Head.
“Red Head” is an unresourceful state in which the player is unfocussed, off task, panicked and ineffective. “Blue Head”, on the other hand, is an optimal state in which you are on task and performing to your best ability.
The All Blacks use triggers to switch from Red to Blue. Richie McCaw used to stamp his feet, literally grounding himself, while Kieran Read stares at the farthest point of the stadium, searching for the bigger picture. Using these triggers, the players aim to achieve clarity and accuracy, so they can perform under pressure.
This ability to focus on the task at hand also enhances the belief in winning.
A third aspect of this final component is the ethos of “No Excuses” – a reminder that New Zealand rugby does not countenance failure and demands 100 per cent from its players at all times.
Those ten ingredients are the ones that I believe make the All Blacks the most successful sporting team in world history.
Within professional sport all players are exceptional athletes and skilled within their sport. What makes the All Blacks different is unique to the New Zealand culture. The total support of the entire nation is at the very root of All Black success. Couple that belief to the uncompromising focus on developing the individual players with exceptional skill sets, focus, and belief in themselves, their team mates and their wider rugby family within the overall egalitarian New Zealand society and you have something no other country in the world has achieved.
With their feet firmly on the ground, they are taught to reach for the stars, and that is why the All Blacks are great.