WIN­NING FOR­MULA

It’s the world’s most suc­cess­ful sports fran­chise. How do the All Blacks do it?

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - FRONT - By Jamie Smyth

For most of my life I hated the All Blacks. It was an emo­tion bred from the pain of watch­ing suc­ces­sive de­feats of my beloved Ire­land and the envy of see­ing New Zealand, a coun­try of 4.5 mil­lion peo­ple, nur­ture gen­er­a­tions of world-beat­ing play­ers and dom­i­nate a sport. At a cer­tain point, the re­sent­ment turned into some­thing else. I be­came fix­ated on dis­cov­er­ing the team’s win­ning for­mula. The All Blacks are the most ­suc­cess­ful sports fran­chise in his­tory, achiev­ing a bet­ter win ra­tio than Brazil in soc­cer 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. Their fans go to matches won­der­ing not whether they’ll win, but rather by how much. So what makes the All Blacks such world-beat­ers – and can any­thing chal­lenge their suc­cess?

“The way we play rugby, it is a more ex­pan­sive game than many other teams,” says Beau­den ­Bar­rett, the 26-year-old Kiwi who was named world player of the year last Novem­ber. “It makes it eas­ier to go out and score quick tries if needed. It cer­tainly helps play­ing that brand of football and hav­ing the be­lief that it is not over till it is over.”

We are sit­ting in the gym of the Hur­ri­canes, a rugby club based in Wellington and the cur­rent cham­pi­ons of Su­per Rugby – a com­pe­ti­tion played be­tween the best clubs in New Zealand, South Africa, Aus­tralia, Ar­gentina and Ja­pan. The words “No Ex­cuses” are painted in big black let­ters above the weight ma­chines; a vis­i­ble re­minder that New Zealand rugby does not coun­te­nance fail­ure and de­mands 100 per cent from its play­ers at all times.

“Pub­lic ex­pec­ta­tion is very high,” says Bar­rett, the All Blacks’ fly-half, a crit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing role as he chooses the di­rec­tion and tempo of most at­tacks. “You know, some­times I feel it is not a bad thing to have it that high but – how do I say this – when we do lose, it is like the end of the world. I think the pub­lic gets used to us win­ning and it has be­come the norm.”

Bar­rett speaks slowly and softly, in a man­ner that seems at odds with his ex­plo­sive run­ning and slick pass­ing on the field. He grew up on a farm in Taranaki on the North Is­land with four broth­ers and three sis­ters. His phe­nom­e­nal pace, vi­sion and tac­ti­cal kick­ing over the past two sea­sons have elec­tri­fied fans; he is prob­a­bly best known abroad for scor­ing the win­ning try in the 2015

World Cup fi­nal against Aus­tralia. The All Blacks’ at­tack­ing style of play helps drive their abil­ity to de­mol­ish op­po­nents. Last year they scored an av­er­age of just un­der six tries per match. The best north­ern hemi­sphere teams play­ing in the an­nual Six Na­tions tour­na­ment – Eng­land, Wales, ­Scot­land, Ire­land, France and Italy – av­er­aged just un­der five tries in 2016.

Keith Quinn, prob­a­bly New Zealand’s most ex­pe­ri­enced rugby com­men­ta­tor, be­gan his ca­reer re­port­ing on the 1971 Lions tour. He be­lieves the coun­try’s nur­tur­ing of ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent is key to their en­dur­ing suc­cess. “We have a num­ber of these bril­liant X-fac­tor play­ers like Beau­den Bar­rett, Julian Savea and Ben Smith, who are push­ing the bril­liance and ex­per­tise in rugby even fur­ther.” It is lunchtime when I ar­rive at Wellington ­Col­lege, a state se­condary school for boys, and hun­dreds of chil­dren are spilling out on to the school’s rugby pitches, toss­ing around balls and per­form­ing hair-rais­ing tack­les on each other. “We try and stop them tack­ling for safety rea­sons dur­ing school breaks but it is eas­ier said than done,” says Greg Shar­land, a PE teacher and coach of the 1st XV.

Es­tab­lished 150 years ago in the coun­try’s ­cap­i­tal, Wellington Col­lege has long proved a ­fer­tile source of rugby tal­ent. A plaque in re­cep­tion bears the names of 35 alumni who have gone on to play for the All Blacks, in­clud­ing cur­rent team mem­ber Dane Coles. A tro­phy cab­i­net is stuffed with sil­ver­ware.

Shar­land points out three cur­rent stu­dents he be­lieves have the po­ten­tial to turn pro­fes­sional, in­clud­ing club cap­tain Naitoa Ah Kuoi, a 17-yearold of Samoan de­scent. He pos­sesses such phys­i­cal strength and skill that he has been play­ing for the 1st XV since he was 14. “Be­ing a Kiwi Samoan, we had rugby ev­ery­where when I was grow­ing up. I’ve been play­ing since I was three years old, which is pretty nor­mal here,” says Ah Kuoi. “I love the game and it would be my dream to play pro­fes­sion­ally. That is what would make all the hard work and sac­ri­fice worth it.”

School-level rugby is a se­ri­ous busi­ness in New Zealand, partly be­cause the sport plays such an el­e­men­tal role in na­tional life. There is a club in most small towns, just about ev­ery news bul­letin car­ries a rugby story and there is even a tele­vi­sion chan­nel ded­i­cated to school rugby, help­ing at­tract young re­cruits and sus­tain the pipe­line of tal­ent for the All Blacks. At a 1st XV par­ent meet­ing dur­ing my visit to Wellington, ad­vice on nu­tri­tion, ­train­ing and health was handed out to par­ents, whose ­sup­port is con­sid­ered es­sen­tial for their sons and the school team to suc­ceed.

Si­mon Poidevin, who played 21 Test matches for Aus­tralia against the All Blacks in the 1980s and 1990s, cites this cul­tural ded­i­ca­tion to rugby as ­piv­otal to his ri­vals’ suc­cess. “In New Zealand it is not just their na­tional sport, it is part of their na­tional iden­tity,” he says. “Rugby con­sumes the coun­try and the pub­lic are proud of what the All Blacks have done for their na­tion. Rugby is on free-to-air TV all the time.”

Some top Kiwi schools send scouts to Samoa, Tonga and Fiji with lu­cra­tive schol­ar­ships to tempt tal­ented chil­dren to re­lo­cate to New Zealand, while am­bi­tious young play­ers travel to the coun­try un­der their own steam to take part in rugby tri­als in search of a schol­ar­ship. Shar­land says ­Wellington Col­lege doesn’t poach tal­ent from over­seas and notes the large im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties from the Pa­cific Is­lands liv­ing in New Zealand al­ready pro­vide a steady stream of play­ers.

One of the most tal­ented is Julian Savea, an All Blacks winger nick­named “The Bus” due to his ­pow­er­ful run­ning style. A sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion New Zealan­der of Samoan de­scent, he is blaz­ing a trail for oth­ers to fol­low, among them his brother Ardie, who is also a ­mem­ber of the All Blacks. “Pa­cific Is­lan­ders are ­con­tribut­ing a lot to New ­Zealand rugby and rugby all around the world. They are re­ally help­ing a lot of teams, which is awe­some,” says Savea, 26, who stands 192cm tall and weighs 108kg.

Savea scored eight tries in the 2015 World Cup, more than any other player. His style of play was ex­em­pli­fied in a game against France, where he knocked three de­fend­ers to the ground in suc­ces­sion on the way to scor­ing a de­ci­sive try. De­spite a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion on the field, Savea is softly spo­ken and shy. When I meet him on a driz­zly day in Wellington, he speaks so qui­etly it is hard to hear him over the laugh­ter of his team-mates who are train­ing nearby. “I didn’t re­alise un­til I was 18 or 19 whether I could ac­tu­ally make it as a pro­fes­sional rugby player,” he says. “It’s then that you start to think about the sac­ri­fices you want to make and whether to go down that path.”

The phys­i­cal train­ing reg­i­mens in pro­fes­sional rugby are gru­elling. On the day I visit the Hur­ri­canes club, where Savea and Bar­rett both play Su­per Rugby, the men are work­ing out in the gym to build mus­cle strength. Later they run on to the train­ing pitch in the rain to pre­pare for their week­end game. As they go through their rou­tines, steam rises from their bod­ies.

In­ter­na­tional travel means long pe­ri­ods spent away from fam­i­lies, and the pres­sure of main­tain­ing a place in the squad is in­tense. But the fi­nan­cial value of a con­tract at a Su­per Rugby club can trans­form the life of a player and their fam­i­lies. “We didn’t have a car when we grew up, so we used to have to walk ev­ery­where or get the bus,” Savea

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