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