The All Blacks’ se­cret? Never stand still or you get over­taken

Side have won 83 of past 93 Tests thanks to their re­lent­less pur­suit of in­no­va­tion

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Liam Napier

Ev­ery­one wants to know the All Blacks’ se­cret. How is it, ex­actly, they have won 83 of 93 Tests un­der their head coach, Steve Hansen, and held the man­tle of the world’s num­ber one ranked team for nine con­sec­u­tive years?

To put that dom­i­nance into per­spec­tive, since 2012 the next best record in world rugby is held by Eng­land, who the All Blacks face to­day at Twick­en­ham, with a 69 per cent win ra­tio (54 out of 78) and 50 mil­lion more res­i­dents than New Zealand. Many myths and leg­ends shroud the All Blacks’ suc­cess but one el­e­ment we can pin­point is their re­lent­less pur­suit of in­no­va­tion. Never, ever, stand still, or you will be over­taken.

Hansen, pro­moted to the lead role af­ter the 2011 World Cup, has cer­tainly demon­strated this ded­i­ca­tion to con­tin­u­ally in­no­vate while man­u­fac­tur­ing his 89.2 per cent win rate with the All Blacks. “One of the great­est things you can do in life and in sport is be a faster learner than some­one else; adapt and ad­just in the mo­ment and then af­ter­wards re­flect and learn,” Hansen says with typ­i­cal sim­plic­ity.

Con­tro­ver­sial de­feat

For the All Blacks this way of be­ing sprang from The Orig­i­nals; for New Zealand it is in­her­ent in their roots. In 1905, the first All Blacks team to tour out­side Aus­trala­sia took Europe by storm, win­ning 34 of their 35 games, outscor­ing their op­po­nents by 920 points. Their sole, highly con­tro­ver­sial, 3-0 de­feat came at Cardiff Arms Park against Wales who had scouted the All Blacks and adopted the wing-for­ward role that their cap­tain, Dave Gal­la­her, de­vised on the boat jour­ney to Europe. Gal­la­her’s team were beaten by their own tac­tic, and vowed from then on to al­ways evolve the game.

You’re never go­ing to get the an­swers if you don’t test them. For Hansen, that phi­los­o­phy is rooted in New Zealand’s her­itage, a coun­try founded on the can-do at­ti­tude of build­ing mo­tors, fences, houses, from any­thing close at hand. “New Zealan­ders are pioneer peo­ple and par­tic­u­larly back in those days we were iso­lated,” Hansen says. “You didn’t have aero­planes; boats took a long time to get any­where and farm­ers were a long way from help if they needed it. They had to be in­no­va­tive, good de­ci­sion-mak­ers and do things for them­selves.”

Inevitably, this men­tal­ity fil­tered down through sport and rugby. The All Blacks, of course, do not al­ways get it right. To­day they evolve through trial and er­ror – do not throw the baby out with the bath water as their head coach likes to say. Equally as im­por­tant are the things Hansen does not say; he has not de­liv­ered a pre-match team talk since leav­ing Wales in 2004 and, in the age of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, the All Blacks are con­stantly try­ing new things; push­ing dif­fer­ent

89.2% Steve Hansen’s win rate with New Zealand

pres­sure points.

In the most re­cent Rugby Cham­pi­onship, for in­stance, they would barely kick to ex­am­ine ball in hand abil­i­ties. The next week they then kicked more to test de­fence. They do not seek sil­ver bul­lets; rather of­ten set­tle for in­cre­men­tal gains. But they also ap­pre­ci­ate when ex­per­i­ments do not come off, they hear about it.

“If you watch rugby now ev­ery­one is ba­si­cally do­ing the same thing but within that sim­i­lar blue­print you’ve got to have the imag­i­na­tion and will­ing­ness to fail or be crit­i­cised for not per­form­ing to the level you want to. Then you can find some­thing. You’re never go­ing to get an­swers if you don’t test them.”

The crit­i­cism Hansen notes came dur­ing the 2015 World Cup pool games, af­ter which the All Blacks claimed their third Webb El­lis crown and sec­ond in suc­ces­sion. In the group stages they bat­tled past Ar­gentina and were un­der­whelm­ing against Tonga, Ge­or­gia and Namibia. Given pre­vi­ous World Cup jit­ters, and a cer­tain quar­ter-fi­nal loom­ing against France in Cardiff, those on the ground and at home grew twitchy, forc­ing Hansen to stress they were hold­ing some­thing back.

Played fa­tigued

There are ar­eas to be in­no­va­tive and no one knows what you’re do­ing if you keep it to your­self. In fact, Hansen and his man­age­ment in­sti­gated heavy train­ing work­loads to the point the team played fa­tigued. Why? To ta­per like a marathon run­ner for the knock­out stage. “What we did in that tour­na­ment was rea­son­ably in­no­va­tive in how we pre­pared. When we needed to we went to the model that would work for us. That only hap­pened be­cause of what we did be­fore.”

All pro­fes­sional rugby teams have height­ened para­noia. How much do you show; against whom and when? Let the ge­nie out of the bot­tle – see the blind­side scrum switch be­tween Beau­den Bar­rett and Rieko Ioane in the fi­nal Bledis­loe Cup Test for ex­am­ple – and it may not work again.

“Do you get to keep it for long?” Hansen says. “No, be­cause ev­ery­one else will see it and find ways to stop it or copy it. But there are many other ways to be in­no­va­tive in how you train, set up your week, lead your peo­ple, how you ex­pect your peo­ple to lead back and that isn’t an­a­lysed. Those are ar­eas you can be in­no­va­tive and no one knows what you’re do­ing if you keep it to your­self.”

Never switch off, never get com­fort­able, never stop in­no­vat­ing. The last part is, af­ter all, in­spired by legacy and her­itage. “If you think you’ve ar­rived you prob­a­bly have and it’ll be the end of the des­ti­na­tion. If you keep striv­ing to be bet­ter then you’re go­ing to search for ways to do that.”

– Guardian

PHO­TO­GRAPH: PHIL WAL­TER/GETTY IMAGES

Dane Coles throws the ball into the li­ne­out dur­ing a New Zealand train­ing ses­sion at the Lens­bury.

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