GREEN TEA PARTY
THE ALL BLACKS CAME INTO THE PROFESSIONAL ERA WEDDED TO AN AMATEUR CULTURE OF PIES, PINTS AND NEAR DISDAIN FOR SPORTS SCIENCE. THAT ALL CHANGED IN 2004 WHEN THE COACHING TEAM AND SENIOR PLAYERS INFLUENCED A REVOLUTION THAT HAS DRIVEN THE HIGHEST PERSONAL
Looking back now, it’s easy to see how off track the All Blacks were in the first decade of professionalism. Strangely, their big advantage in the amateur period was their professional attitude and culture.
Or at least, what helped the All Blacks in that late period of amateurism was that they were more professional than their international peers in attitude and discipline. They trained harder, smarter and spent longer working on their basic skills.
But they were still largely amateur in mindset when it came to the wider issues of lifestyle and holistic preparation. And it was this that came to hurt them in the first decade of the professional era.
The game transitioned but in many respects the All Blacks didn’t. They embraced professionalism, but only up to a point. They remained in much the same mindset that they had been in before the conversion.
Standards lifted, just not high enough. They trained more, but maybe still not enough to stay ahead of the chasing pack.
It wasn’t deliberate as such, more a consequence of not fully understanding the extent to which players, coaches and
managers could work to drive performance higher.
The bigger failing, however, was that the team and the wider professional rugby landscape were still mired in an amateur culture of pies, pints and scepticism bordering on ridicule towards sports science.
The concept of personal responsibility was anathema to most All Blacks. There was still this sense of entitlement that hard work should be rewarded with a big night on the booze. Knowledge of nutrition was limited or even if it was improved, many players continued to ignore best advice and ate what they liked when they liked.
There was no strong culture of working outside designated training times. Attention to detail was minimal and not many players had any appreciation of sports science as it related to recovery and rehabilitation.
Essentially the All Blacks were still largely abiding by the old rules of getting on the grog after a win. A recovery session was downing a can of fizzy, scoffing a chocolate bar and playing a round of golf.
Consumption of junk food wasn’t a sometimes thing, it was a sneak out and wolf it down whenever you could kind of thing.
Strength and conditioning coaches were to be avoided and anyone who even thought about knocking on the door of the sports psychologist would be ridiculed for being a combination of soft, mental and weird.
Why bother with that when five minutes with a few of the senior players would clean up any issues with the ubiquitous and failsafe advice of “harden up”.
There wasn’t a genuine professional culture driving the players to be all they could be and that became an irrefutable source of embarrassment in August 2004.
After a heavy loss to South Africa at Ellis Park, half of the All Blacks squad had to be put in the recovery position as they lay passed out in the gardens of their team hotel after a sensational booze session.
The shocking thing about that night was not that it happened – heavy drinking was institutionalised across the game – but that there was no sense of embarrassment or even recognition that it was not the way for a high performance sports team to behave.
The coaching group of Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith vowed to make changes after that night. Smith was so appalled that he said if things didn’t change, he didn’t want to be involved.
Once the team returned to New Zealand the main goal became to widen everyone’s understanding of professionalism and embrace a new culture.
So began a major clean up attitudes and behaviour at the end of that year. They made it their goal to drag the All Blacks properly into the professional age and empower them to take ownership of their lifestyles.
If the All Blacks were going to have a mantra of continual improvement they had to understand what that meant.
Adecade on and the culture within the All Blacks could hardly be more different. There is this incessant desire to embrace anything and everything that could lead to an improvement in performance.
The old days have been buried. There is no booze culture – no endemic or institutionalised desire to get drunk each and every time the team plays.
Sports science is seen as critical to performance and players reach out for all the help they can. Nutrition is taken seriously. Recovery is viewed as vital and players spend hours working on ways they can improve their flexibility, strength and speed.
What is driving this changed environment is an intense awareness that each individual has to be responsible for their preparation. Bad habits will be found out and they will be found out quickly. Don’t eat well and it will show up in the skin fold testing.
Drink too much and ditto, plus training and playing performance will suffer. Ignore the mental side of the game and it will become apparent in poor decisionmaking.
All this explains why these days there are gallons of green tea and berry smoothies guzzled, but not so much beer.
This is the new age All Blacks where no one within the team cares about perception or feels the remotest need to conform to some kind of stereotype about what a rugby player should be all about.
Attitudes are progressive, inclusive and tolerant – alternative therapies and disciplines can be tried without fear of stigma being attached or a peer group judging.
Yoga and Pilates are big favourites within the squad because there is a near obsession to maintain and develop flexibility. Ma’a Nonu was one of the first to normalise yoga within the All Blacks and his devotion to it encouraged others.
Beauden Barrett revealed last year that he is a convert. “I’ve been working on my flexibility, that’s been vital for me,” he said. “I’m quite a stiff bloke so extra sessions here and there have certainly helped.
“It’s more a recovery thing for me. It’s great for the mind as well as the body. It’s just getting that right balance and I’ve seen great benefits from that.”
An older generation might wonder what Sir Colin Meads would make of these new age All Blacks and their green tea and downward dogs, but the beauty of Generation Y is that they don’t appear to be saddled with the same insecurities and need for approval.
The culture within the All Blacks seems to be driven towards exploration of anything and everything to help performance. What works for some won’t for others, but no idea is too whacky.
“I have tried yoga and I really enjoyed it but things have to fit into your plan,” says All Blacks veteran Israel Dagg. “I know a lot of the guys love it.
“But I have started doing a thing called float where you jump into a pod and they have 500kg of Epsom Salts and you just lie there for an hour and switch off. That is amazing.
“I do that once a week and it is good for my mind. You get away from the game, relax and float. There are lots of tools out there...yoga, Pilates...but I get about three hours of massage a week and float for an hour.
“I guess there could be that stigma that if you go to yoga it is only for girls. That’s only what people think. It doesn’t matter. Our body is our tool and we need it to function and if you don’t look after it, you won’t perform.”
In any cultural revolution there is usually a figure or figures who end up playing a hugely influential role in accelerating change. In regard to driving the culture of improved personal responsibility and respecting the opportunity of being an All Black, probably no one did more than Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter.
These two were the consummate standard setters from late 2004 onwards. They had a deep and advanced understanding of what it meant to be professional and just how far they had to go in all aspects of their training and preparation. These two were relentless and meticulous in the way they trained, how they recovered and how they conducted themselves.
I’VE BEEN WORKING ON MY FLEXIBILITY, THAT’S BEEN VITAL FOR ME. I’M QUITE A STIFF BLOKE SO EXTRA SESSIONS HERE AND THERE HAVE CERTAINLY HELPED.’ BEAUDEN BARRETT
They set the benchmark and made it clear they expected everyone else to follow. It was no longer cool or acceptable to cut corners. There was no admiration for anyone who mocked the wider notion of sports science or rejected it.
With McCaw and Carter leading the way, ably supported by the likes of Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn and Kieran Read, the All Blacks evolved into a genuine high performance team.
In specific regard to embracing alternative therapies, treatments and micro managing the development and recovery of the body, it would be Sonny Bill Williams who was one of the biggest influences.
He has taken training, recovery and lifestyle management to new levels.
He doesn’t drink, says he’s “a total psycho” about what he eats, he prays twice a day, observes Ramadan, has dabbled with the ancient practice of cupping, owns a NormaTec machine – a high end compression device that aids recovery and is favoured by ultra endurance athletes – and is relentlessly working on ways to improve his chances of playing at the highest level.
His physique – he’s 1.94m, 108kg and has less than five per cent body fat – is the ultimate proof of the lengths he goes to prepare himself.
“He’s the ultimate professional,” says veteran wing Israel Dagg. “He’s always got these new tools and is bringing in these new machines. If you watch him he’s always stretching and looking after his body. He doesn’t even lift tonnes of weights, he’s just naturally gifted and strong. He looks after his recovery, food, nutrition, flexibility is huge for him – all that stuff is 100 per cent important.”
Williams’s attitude has been infectious. His work ethic is said to be a source of inspiration to all those who spend time playing and training with him.
The running joke is that his teammates say they have to match his output to avoid looking puny in comparison, but there is a
SONNY BILL WILLIAMS HAS LED THE TREND TOWARDS LOOKING AT ALTERNATIVE METHODS BUT I THINK A LOT OF OUR GUYS NOW ARE WILLING AND READY TO TRY DIFFERENT THINGS TO ALLOW THEM TO KEEP PLAYING FOR LONGER.’ CHRIS LENDRUM
deeper realisation that players across the elite spectrum now understand better the levels of hard work and discipline that are required to keep winning.
There is also a greater emphasis placed on career planning than there was 12 years ago and as such, individuals have learned that if they want to still be earning a living out of rugby in their mid-thirties, they
have to look after themselves.
“If you go back ten or twelve years there were no players over the age of thirty playing in New Zealand,” says New Zealand Rugby contracts manager Chris Lendrum. “Now there are quite a significant number.
“There is no doubt that the Super Rugby clubs are better resourced than they previously have been and they do more to care for the athletes. But if you look at a couple of guys like Wyatt Crockett and Ma’a Nonu, say, players who have had long careers and played a lot of minutes, what isn’t seen is the enormous amount of work they do on their own time to keep them at that peak level.
“Sonny Bill Williams has led the trend towards looking at alternative methods but I think a lot of our guys now are willing and ready to try different things to allow them to keep playing for longer.”
The new culture hasn’t been confined to embracing just physical therapies. Arguably the bigger change within the All Blacks in the last decade is the invasion and total acceptance of psychology and mental skills into the daily routine.
All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka is probably the busiest man in the management team and can be considered one of the highest impact influencers.
No longer do players with an issue guts it out in their room hoping the “harden up’ mantra will see them through.
It’s not like that now at all. Most of the current All Blacks will see Enoka at least once a week to hone a mental strengthening technique, talk over a problem or to simply get something off their chest that has been bugging them.
There is acceptance – and why wouldn’t there be – that mental skills are as much a part of the high performance package as physical and that there is no reason to distrust or be suspicious of those who practise the art of psychology.
For a sport that was built on hard men and macho cultures, it is astonishing now that the All Blacks sit around and talk about their feelings. But they do, because the stigma of being weak for seeing a psychologist has been removed and for the current All Blacks, nothing could be more normal than a session with Enoka.
“I have been fortunate to have worked with people like Gilbert right back to the early 1990s as a player and as a coach,” says head coach Steve Hansen. “I think back then everyone thought it was a gimmick, but fool them because your brain is your most powerful tool.
“It has a clear side and a dark side and if you let the dark side take over then your performance falls away. There is no doubt that having a high mental fortitude no matter what sport you play, then you can operate from a better place. By embracing it you go to places that sometimes there is uncertainty about, but you know you are going in the right direction. It is a skill so you can train your brain to perform under pressure.
“As we mature as a professional sport, athletes are starting to understand that if they want to have longevity they have got to act in a professional manner and manage themselves in their stretching, their food intake, their alcohol intake – it’s not a matter of them not drinking it’s how much do they drink, when do they drink?
“Rest and recovery is also important because you want to be performing to a high standard all the time. I think the understanding of all that has got better as time has gone on.”
It needed to get better as for all the improvements the All Blacks made post 2004, they still struggled mentally on the biggest stage. They fell apart at the 2007 World Cup when the French stunned them in the quarterfinal.
“We got to 2007 and again on the biggest stage at the biggest game, for want of a better word, we choked,” says Enoka.
“We didn’t get the job done and we came back and had to have a particular look at me and my area. I asked why [we had failed] and went and had a look at other people doing other things that weren’t in the conventional area.
“That’s when I looked at hooking up with Renzie Hanham who is a karate artist. Ceri Evans who is a forensic psychiatrist. And we had this wee consultancy group where we would toss ideas around and talk about the mental game.
“Vulnerability is the base quality that allows us to grow. It is not structured. It is not a menu-driven approach. We have got a process and structure that works. The more times we are under pressure and the more we navigate through it, the more we know they work.”
Since 2004, the All Blacks have reached stunning levels of professionalism.
A recovery session is an ice bath, an intense stretching workout and a rub-down. The day after a test, the All Blacks hotel turns into a pop-up massage studio and they travel with several treatment tables in their near 4000kg of luggage and usually have access to a hyperbaric chamber to help speed up players’ healing response to injury.
Now players not only know what chia seeds are, they actually like them and even the traditional post-match lolly fest – there would be jars of sweets in the changing room after each test – has been done away with. Now there are nuts, seeds and dried fruits.
The high performance world Henry, Hansen and Smith envisioned when they began their coaching reign in 2004, has been reached and the influence of senior players in driving them there was huge.
THERE IS NOT DOUBT THAT HAVING A HIGH MENTAL FORTITUDE NO MATTER WHAT SPORT YOU PLAY, THEN YOU CAN OPERATE FROM A BETTER PLACE.’ STEVE HANSEN VULNERABILITY IS THE BASE QUALITY THAT ALLOWS US TO GROW. IT IS NOT STRUCTURED. IT IS NOT A MENU-DRIVEN APPROACH. WE HAVE GOT A PROCESS AND STRUCTURE THAT WORKS. THE MORE TIMES WE ARE UNDER PRESSURE AND THE MORE WE NAVIGATE THROUGH IT, THE MORE WE KNOW THEY WORK.’ GILBERT ENOKA
STANDARD SETTERS Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter were instrumental in driving higher standards.
MICRO MANAGEMENT SBW has shown his teammates how much they can work on their body.
FLOATING FREE Israel Dagg floats once a week to clear his mind.
TIGHT SHIP From 2004 the All Blacks began to better embrace what being professional meant.
GRIM DAY Defeat in Johannesburg forced a massive change in attitudes.
FALSE DAWN The All Blacks were more fragile than they realised in 2003.