Populous Magazine 12: Back in Black

From the archive: Issue 12, 2015

Favourites to win this year’s rugby world cup, the all blacks have pretty much dominated international rugby since they entered the sport 130 years ago. Gavin Mortimer, of rugby world magazine, finds out how.

It’s one of the more extraordinary sporting conundrums: how has a small island nation in a far-flung corner of the planet with a population of just 4.5 million dominated one sport for so long?

The country in question is New Zealand and the sport is rugby union. Of course, they’re better known as the All Blacks – a nickname they’ve had courtesy of their kit since their first tour to Europe in 1905 when they also introduced to the world their pre-kick off haka, or Maori war dance. On that ten-month trip, the All Blacks won 31 of their 32 matches, scoring 830 points and conceding just 39. Ever since then they’ve maintained a similarly stunning success rate.

The 1924 touring side to the British Isles was dubbed ‘The Invincibles’ after winning all 32 of their matches, and the most recent squad to visit the spiritual home of rugby defeated England, Scotland and Wales on consecutive weekends last November.

  • The All Blacks’ Brodie Retallick (right) grapples for the ball.

The All Blacks will be back in Britain later this year, arriving in September to defend the Rugby World Cup they won four years ago in New Zealand. Incredibly, since lifting that trophy they have lost just two of the 42 Test matches they’ve played (against England in 2012 and South Africa in 2014). In those 42 matches they’ve scored 154 tries – 3.6 per match – and set new standards of sporting excellence.

New Zealand have their eyes on an unprecedented third World Cup victory. It would take a brave individual to bet against them. Here we analyse the tactical, physiological and sociological reasons for the All Blacks’ dominance.

FEAR OF FAILURE

More than any other nation, New Zealand do not accept defeat in their national sport. “There has been an ethos or legacy of winning since the 1905 and 1924 teams that has been carried on,” explains Kiwi author and academic Tom Johnson. The stats bear this out. The All Blacks’ win ratio of 402 victories in 526 Tests played between 1903 and 2014 is a staggering 78.23 per cent. The next best team is South Africa who have won 66.09 per cent of their 441 Test matches (281 wins). Then come England who (as of early February 2015) were on 57.2 per cent, successful in 364 of their 680 matches.

ALL-ROUNDERS

New Zealand don’t channel all their energy into dominating Test match rugby. Their under-20 side, the Baby Blacks, has also won four of the last seven world titles; the New Zealand women’s side, the Black Ferns, won four consecutive World Cup titles between 1998 and 2010; the national rugby sevens side has scooped 12 of the 15 Sevens World Series titles. Sevens coach Sir Gordon Tietjens – knighted for his rugby achievements in 2013 – has said this code is “a great sport because it teaches young players to be unified, to work hard, to be dedicated to the team and to the game”.

COMMITMENT TO LEARNING

The 1905 squad that toured Europe weight-trained on the ship over to prepare for the matches, a form of fitness training unknown in British rugby at the time. Ever since then, the All Blacks have been rugby’s innovators, be it introducing specialist scrummaging positions on that 1905 tour or the ferocious rucking style pioneered in the 1930s. Then in the 1990s, the All Blacks revolutionised back play by selecting the mammoth Jonah Lomu and Va’aiga Tuigamala on the wings. In more recent seasons they have once again led the way by reverting to smaller, speedier backs such as Cory Jane and Ben Smith, both 14 stone – mere whippets by rugby standards.

PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE

“At international level, to be able to execute, it’s often not about skill or ability but instead having [a cool] head under pressure,” said All Black fly-half Colin Slade after his last-gasp kick had edged out Australia 29-28 in October 2014. It was the latest example of Kiwi coolness at the death. A few months earlier they had beaten England 20-15 with a try three minutes from time, while in 2013 against Ireland they clawed back a 19-0 deficit to win 24-22 with a last-minute try. Mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka is the man who makes the All Blacks mentally the strongest side in world rugby.

NURTURING TALENT

The All Blacks have a tradition of nurturing young talent and allowing it time to blossom at Test level. The 15 players who took to the field for New Zealand’s final match of 2014 – the victory over Wales – boasted 752 caps, yet only six had been in the starting 15 in the 2011 World Cup final. Younger players, such as wing Julian Savea and lock Brodie Retallick (the world player of the year in 2014, pictured above), had been introduced into the team in 2012 to allow them time to develop for the 2015 World Cup.

IN THE GENES

Indigenous New Zealanders, the Maoris, have been inextricably linked to rugby ever since the sport was first played in New Zealand in 1870. The first touring party to leave New Zealand was the 1888-89 Maori side that played 107 matches during a tour of the British Isles and Australia. For the big, powerful and athletic Maoris, rugby gave them a sense of identity among the Pakeha New Zealanders (the white European settlers). As of 2013 there were 35,000 Maori rugby players in New Zealand – a five percent increase on the 2008 figure. More recently the All Blacks have been further strengthened by players of Pacific island heritage, with 10 of the 38-man All Blacks squad in 2013 having Polynesian ancestry.

THE SMALL BLACKS

Every primary school in New Zealand boasts a grass playing field so that, from the age of four, kids can get used to handling rugby balls. Until the age of eight, Kiwi kids don’t tackle, kick or scrum. “Everything we do is about four key skills: catch, pass, run and evade,” explains Brent Anderson, a former All Black and now manager of New Zealand Rugby Football Union’s community programme. Once the children have mastered rugby’s basics, they are introduced to tackling at age eight. It’s not until they turn 11 that they take part in 15-a-side games.

SENSE OF IDENTITY

In 1890, 20 years after rugby was introduced, there were nearly 700 clubs in New Zealand. It was a sport that appealed to the tough individualism of the white settlers who saw it as an opportunity to forge a national identity by beating the home nations of Britain at sport. “We had early success at rugby at a time when nation-building was a very important thing,” says Professor Toni Bruce, a sport sociologist at Auckland University. “New Zealand beating British teams at rugby was used by politicians to promote the virtues of the healthy, virile Kiwi lifestyle.”

Populous designed four of the 2015 Rugby World Cup venues, and worked on two others.

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