Inside Sport - - ANATOMY OF A CHAMP -

When New Zealand bowed out of the 2007World Cup, los­ing to France in the quar­ter-fi­nals, it was a na­tional em­bar­rass­ment and a cat­a­lyst for change. Ki­wis never wanted to feel that way again. And thus be­gan Op­er­a­tion Co-Op­er­a­tion. They didn’t call it that. But they could have.

“That World Cup was a sur­prise for them,” says Wal­la­bies' skills man Mick Byrne, who spent ten years in New Zealand rugby. “It’s a pretty big state­ment, but they worked out that what they had been do­ing wasn’t go­ing to keep up.

“So their Su­per Rugby teams and All Blacks got to­gether and asked, ‘How are we go­ing to fix this?’ and ‘What have we learnt from it?’.”

As in Aus­tralia, there had been “di­vi­sion,” ac­cord­ing to Byrne. Prov­inces saw them­selves as com­pet­i­tive ri­vals. But Gra­ham Henry, among oth­ers, got peo­ple talk­ing, and made them see the ben­e­fit of shar­ing knowl­edge. To­day, from un­der­15s through to the All Blacks, they’re be­ing drilled on the same stuff.

Guardian jour­nal­ist Andy Bull wrote a piece in 2015 (and you should Google it, it’s good) ti­tled: “The mak­ing of an All Black: how New Zealand sus­tains its rugby dy­nasty”. In it, Bull ex­plains that in New Zealand, “catch” and “pass” have al­most come to be con­flated into one word: “catch­pass”. “This is the fun­da­men­tal skill, the first thing learned by kids, and still prac­tised hard by the pro­fes­sion­als,” writes Bull.

Adds Byrne: “They’re de­vel­op­ing play­ers around con­sis­tent skill sets. Coaches are de­liv­er­ing a con­sis­tent mes­sage com­ing down so that, for ex­am­ple, when play­ers are in­volved in an un­der­17s camp, it’s the same mes­sage they re­mem­ber from two years ago, and so on.

“Ev­ery player goes through the same skill as­sess­ment, is given feed­back on skills: break­down, at­tack, run­ning lines, pass­ing, tackle tech­nique. Day one of the camp, ev­ery kid gets the same as­sess­ment. So 50 kids learn the same skill set, and are given a pro­gram which they take back out to their lo­cal clubs.”

The All Blacks, of course, are part of most Ki­wis’ iden­tity. Small, young coun­try, huge foot­print. Inse­cu­rity – does the world know we’re here? – is a pow­er­ful driver. And, as in a small town, when you don’t do well, ev­ery­body knows.

“When we lost in our days it was a na­tional tragedy, a na­tional dis­as­ter, and you got, not abused, but scorned by peo­ple,” said All Blacks leg­end Colin Meads in 1999. Meads said the All Blacks are “mo­ti­vated by fear”. Not of los­ing but “let­ting your coun­try down”.

New Zealand has the bet­ter of the great Poly­ne­sian di­as­pora. Emi­gres fromTonga, Samoa and Fjii see good schools and job op­por­tu­ni­ties. They also see them­selves re­flected back in faces on the street, on tele­vi­sion. New Zealand’s indige­nous Maori cul­ture is revered. The haka is one of the best things in sport.

The feeder wells flow still. The leg­end of Meads is that he could carry a sheep un­der each arm in the morn­ing, take on the Lions that af­ter­noon. Richie McCaw came from an Otago sheep farm. Five Bar­rett broth­ers come from a dairy farm in the bush. Their old man is Kevin “Smi­ley” Bar­rett, a Taranaki, hero of all Taranaki. His sons were un­likely to play cricket.

Jonah Lomu came from South Auck­land where school­boy ri­valry is fierce, as it is across the coun­try. The New Zealand Her­ald found that some Auck­land schools spend $50,000 per year on their first XV. Four times that if they tour over­seas. Auck­land Gram­mar has pro­duced 51 All Blacks in­clud­ing Grant Fox, Doug Howlett and Rieko Ioane. Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary went there. He didn’t make the

first XV.

Beau­den Bar­rett: for­ever work­ing on "catch­pass".

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