WHY THE ALL BLACKS ARE SO GOOD
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
Beauden Barrett: forever working on "catchpass".