Why Are The All Blacks So Good?
The Best Team In The World
Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal when researching to find the world’s greatest sports team for his book, The Captain Class settled on sixteen teams. From the New York Yankees of the mid-20th century , basketball’s Boston Celtics from the 60’s the Australian women’s hockey team in the 1990s and Barcelona's footballers who played from 2008 to 2013.
Only one team featured twice on the list. the New Zealand Rugby Team also known as the All Blacks. Walker picked the teams of 1986 to 1990 and of 2011 to 2015, he also had the 1960s team on his shortlist. For any knowledgeable sports fan this came as no big surprise for the All Blacks are the most dominant team in the history of sport...any sport.
The All Blacks are the most successful sports franchise in history, achieving a better win ratio than Brazil in football or Australia in cricket. They have claimed three World Cups and won more than three-quarters of the matches they have played in their 125-year history. More than any major national sports team. Many New Zealand fans go to rugby matches wondering not whether their team will win, but rather by how much.
Era Transcending Success
Most great sports teams are dynasties that are built around an inspirational coach or several players, which lose their edge when those key personnel change. What sets the All Blacks apart is that while they have had periods of huge success, as exemplified by the teams captained by Wayne “Buck” Shelford and Richie McCaw, their record of sustained excellence transcends across eras.
Since their first International match in 1903, the All Blacks have won 79 per cent of their matches. Way behind, in second place, are South Africa, with a 65 per cent win rate, and then England with 58 per cent. And the supremacy is growing, at the time of writing the All Blacks have just beaten South Africa 57-0. Of the 104 matches New Zealand have played since the start of 2010, they have won 91, drawn three and lost only nine, for a win rate of around ninety per cent.
The win percentage is all the more impressive when you look at the international rugby program. Unlike other sports such as soccer or cricket, the top tier rugby nations have very few easy games, the top countries play each other home and away year after year.
So how has a country of just four million people managed to achieve such rugby domination for so long? Rugby is not the only mass participation sport in New Zealand it is internationally competitive in hockey, cricket and individual sports such as triathlon. But in terms of its place in the national identity, no sport comes close to rugby.
The All Blacks story goes all the way back to the 1905 tour of Europe and North America. The team became known as the “The Originals”, they won 34 out of 35 matches, scoring 976 points and conceded only 59. They played the sort of attacking rugby for which the country would become and is still renowned for. For what at the time was considered a tiny, distant nation this was a impressive achievement, especially the wins in Britain.
Point Of Difference
New Zealand Rugby maintains a strong grip on rugby at all levels, from school, club and international, this enables it to prioritize the national teams success above everything else. In contrast to this, rugby clubs in France and England are privately owned, this situation can at times lead to disputes between the national unions and clubs over how players are managed and utilized.
The New Zealand Rugby system is all about sharing information between the different levels from schools, provincial and Super Rugby clubs, this they believe ensures the All Blacks are the best and keep winning.
Another important point of difference from most other rugby nations is New Zealand Rugby will not select anyone who is playing outside of New Zealand to play for the All Blacks. This rule keeps the best talent at home, The knock on effect is it strengthens New Zealand's domestic rugby competitions, and ensures that the players aren’t playing too many games and arriving for international matches under prepared or suffering from the effects of jet lag.
Which Rugby Team Do You Support
Not Just Numbers
New Zealand’s dominance is not a question of numbers. There are only about 250 professional rugby players in New Zealand, and around 150,000 players at participation level are registered with New Zealand Rugby. This is much less than Australia (230,000), England (382,000) or France (542,000).
Also contrary to most people’s expectations, the most played team sport in New Zealand is now soccer not rugby. Even at institutions such as Wellington College, a school with a long rugby tradition that dates back more than a hundred years, more pupils play soccer than rugby.
School rugby is a serious business in New Zealand. There is a rugby club in almost all towns. There is even a television channel dedicated to school rugby, helping to attract young players and maintain a pipeline of talent for the All Blacks. At some parent team meetings advice on nutrition, training and health are handed out, parent support is considered essential for the school team to succeed.
The responsibility to maintain the highest standards rests with the All Blacks team members themselves. No one in the All Blacks set-up is more important than the players and that includes the coach.
Gilbert Enoka, the All Blacks mental skills coach, noted that current coach Steve Hansen was recently castigated by a senior player for arriving to a team meeting a few minutes late.
Enoka explains...“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,”
Enoka,a former international volleyball player is credited by many in the group with changing the team culture after a defeat to South Africa in 2004 that was followed by a large alcohol drinking session. He also helped to reinforce the All Blacks’ earnestness and overcome the tag of “chokers” — a moniker they had earned when they failed to win the 1999 and 2007 World Cups despite having exceptionally talented teams.
Current All Black Beauden Barrett says, “Sports psychology is huge within the All Blacks, we work hours and hours out on the field and in the gym but your brain needs that work as well. You need to stay fresh, keep developing your mental skills. It is not something you either have or you don’t. It is something we work on most weeks to develop.”
The team also need to be able to deal with huge pressure it is constantly under. The New Zealand public believes and expects the All Blacks should win every game, which is why they seldom field a under powered team. Even at the end of a long season when the team head to the northern hemisphere to play in the autumn internationals against Europe’s best teams.
The year Graham Henry took over as coach, was the start of a new modern era of dominance. Henry understood that he needed to take a step back and empower the players. An approach that his then assistant Steve Hansen has stuck with after taking over at the end of 2011.
There was also a sea change in the culture of the team. What the All Blacks have managed to do, especially since the aforementioned loss to South Africa is to create a legacy. They talk about being ‘custodians of the jersey’ and wanting to leave the jersey in a better place than where they found it.
Character matters to the All Blacks. There are two questions someone who comes into the All Blacks squad is asked. “What are you prepared to sacrifice”? And “what are you going to give to the team”?
Even the most brilliant players have to contribute, there is no room for egos. The team famously reminds all incumbent players “ There’s no room in the team for dickheads.”
Senior players sit at the back of the tour bus, newer players have to earn their way to the back bench.
Even now as back to back World Champions the players are still expected to clean the dressing room after practice.
Do The Basics Better
Yes the All Blacks are renowned for razzle dazzle rugby but what underpins their superiority is that they are the best at the basics. They defend intelligently, they never send more players than necessary into the breakdown when the ball is being contested once a players is tackled to the ground. Better to be on your feet to defend again than tied up in a bundle on the floor.
The accuracy of their passes is what also sets them apart, from the front row forwards to the wingers all players pass with a fluidity and the player receiving the ball is always running onto it in order to punch through the oppositions defence.
Their set pieces , scrums and line outs are accurate and the line out is often at pace in order to push the oppositions fitness to the limits. No team is fitter than the All Blacks, they play the full eighty minutes at pace. Often the sixty minute to eighty minute mark is where they pull away to victory.
Rugby is built on the basic foundations and no team does them better.