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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 from the terraces of Dublin’s Lansdowne Road, and the envy of seeing New Zealand, a country of 4.5 million people, somehow nurture generations of world-beating players and dominate a sport.
At a certain point, the resentment turned into something else. I became fascinated with 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 football 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. Many New Zealand fans go to rugby matches wondering not whether their team will win, but rather by how much.
Over the next two weeks they will play a three-match Test series against the British and Irish Lions, a squad picked from the best players in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The omens aren’t good for the Lions, who have not won a series against the New Zealand team since 1971. 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 New Zealander who was named world player of the year in 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, who plays in the fly-half position for the All Blacks, 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 pitch. He grew up on a farm in Taranaki on New Zealand’s 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. Most rugby pundits say Barrett is the key player the Lions must stop if they are to have any chance of defeating the All Blacks in the series, though his brothers Jordie, 20, and Scott, 23, have also been named in the squad — the first trio of brothers to be selected to play in the same New Zealand team.
“From the very first game I watched the All Blacks and saw the haka [a Maori ceremonial war dance performed by the players before every match], I knew straight away that was part of who I am,” he says.
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 physical education teacher and coach of the 1st XV.
Established 150 years ago in the country’s capital, Wellington College has proved a fertile source of rugby-playing 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 rugby silverware.
Sharland points out three current students he believes have the potential to turn professional, including club captain Naitoa Ah Kuoi, a 17-year-old of Samoan descent. He is possessed with 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, in between bites of pasta salad from a huge Tupperware container. “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 Pacific Islands such as 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 that the large immigrant communities from the Pacific Islands living in New Zealand already provide a steady stream of players.
One of the most talented Pacific Islander recruits is Julian Savea, an All Black 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, 27, who stands 6ft 4in tall and weighs 108kg (about 17 stone).
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 pitch, Savea is soft-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 regimes 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 a professional 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 says. “For my parents it was a little bit embarrassing because they had to keep asking other parents for rides to take us to games. For myself and my brother it was a huge thing to be able to provide that. We didn’t have a car until my first contract.”
New Zealand’s talent pool is not a question of superior numbers. There are only about 250 professional rugby players in the country, and 150,000 players at grassroots level are registered with New Zealand Rugby. This is fewer than Australia (230,000), England (382,000) or France (542,000), according to the 2016 World Rugby Yearbook.
And contrary to expectation, the most played team sport in New Zealand is now football rather than rugby, according to a 2013/14 study by New Zealand Sport. Even at Wellington College, a school with a rugby tradition that dates back more than a century, more kids play football than rugby, according to Sharland. However, he says the most talented athletes still tend to gravitate to rugby, a sport that can offer a stellar career path to the best players.
The same is true of coaches. New Zealand has been blessed with some of the world’s best rugby brains, including former All Black coaches Brian Lochore, Wayne Smith and current head coach Steve Hansen. Perhaps the greatest compliment to the standards of coaching is the fact that seven of the 20 teams playing at the 2015 World Cup employed Kiwi coaches.
“If you don’t produce good coaches, then you won’t produce good players,” said Steve Tew, the chief executive of New Zealand Rugby, shortly before that tournament. “You need great coaches to produce great players. The coaches have to come first.”
Richie McCaw, a former All Blacks captain who is the most capped rugby player in history, tells me the national team’s culture of success helps to maintain grassroots interest in rugby. And a vital component of this success is wrapped up in the history, tradition and ethos of the All Blacks, which has built up over more than a century, he adds.
“I think you have to look back at the early days of New Zealand rugby to find answers,” says McCaw. “There was the Originals team [the first New Zealand team to tour outside Australasia] who managed to get one over the mother country in the early 1900s, which was quite a big thing. I think that is what started the All Black psyche. We have such a history of success and the players nowadays do not want to let that legacy down.”
The Originals tour to Britain in 1905-06 is chronicled at the New Zealand Museum of Rugby in Palmerston North, a town about two hours’ drive north of Wellington. Old photographs and memorabilia document how a New Zealand team led by Dave Gallaher, an Irish migrant who served in the Boer war, won 34 of their 35 matches. They only lost to Wales, by the narrow margin of 3-0. The All Blacks went unbeaten on a subsequent British tour in 1924-25, earning the moniker the “Invincibles”.
Stephen Berg, director of the museum, says such emphatic overseas victories helped cement rugby as the dominant sport among the settler communities across New Zealand. “Rugby initially provided a reason for the settlers in New Zealand to get together and socialise. The physicality of the sport suited the farmers, who arrived to settle the land, and Maori,” he says. “The fact rugby was played by everyone in New Zealand helped it to spread quickly and become the dominant sport whereas in England rugby remained an upper-class sport and was overtaken by soccer.”
New Zealand’s prevailing egalitarian culture runs through the All Blacks’ set-up, with the star players expected to clean up their locker rooms after games and training. The team also operates what players refer to as a “no dickheads” policy, which ensures troublemakers or overinflated egos do not last long on the squad.
“I know people who have been taken off the All Blacks’ list, even if they are the best player, when their attitude wasn’t right,” says Neil Sorensen, general manager at New Zealand Rugby, who has worked at the governing body since 2001. “There are a bunch of unwritten rules within the game at all levels that are drilled into our kids from a young age — it’s about sportsmanship, respect for the game and the opposition”.
The responsibility to maintain the highest standards rests with the team members themselves. No one in the All Blacks set-up is more important than the players — and that includes Steve Hansen, the coach. Gilbert Enoka, the team’s mental skills coach, noted last month that Hansen was recently chastised by a senior player for arriving at a team meeting a few minutes late. “In our cornerstone philosophies, the team towers above the individual. You will never succeed on your own but you will be successful as an individual if the team functions well,” he told Wales Online.
Enoka, a former international volleyball player who joined the All Blacks 16 years ago, is credited by many in the group with changing the culture of the team following a defeat to South Africa in 2004 that was followed by a now infamous binge-drinking session. He also helped to stiffen the All Blacks’ resolve and overcome the tag of “chokers” — a reputation they earned when they failed to win the 1999 and 2007 World Cups despite having exceptionally talented teams.
“Sports psychology is huge,” Barrett tells me. “We work hours and hours out on the field and in the gym but your brain needs that work as well. You need to stay fresh, keep developing your mental skills. It is not something you either have or you don’t. It is something we work on most weeks to develop.”
New Zealand Rugby maintains an iron-clad grip on the game at all levels, including club rugby, which enables it to prioritise the success of the national team above all else. In contrast, clubs in England and France are privately owned, a situation that has, at times, led to disputes between national unions and clubs over how star players are managed and utilised. “Our system is all about sharing information between the different levels — schools, provincial and Super Rugby clubs — to ensure the All Blacks are the best and keep winning. Then we can all celebrate the victory,” says Sorensen. “I doubt the Bath coach would be comfortable sitting down with the Leinster or Toulon coaches [in Europe], sharing ideas about how England could be successful on the world stage.”
Another key point of difference from most other rugby nations is New Zealand Rugby’s decision not to select anyone who is playing overseas to turn out for the All Blacks. This rule has kept the best talent at home, strengthening domestic rugby competitions, and ensuring that the team aren’t playing too many games and arriving for matches ill-prepared or suffering from jet lag.
Ben Smith, the All Black vice-captain, turned down a big pay rise to play with a club in France this year. He says the lure of the All Black jersey and the opportunity to play against the Lions kept him in New Zealand. “I wanted to give myself the chance to fight to get an All Black place in the next couple of years. To play as well as I can for the [Super Rugby club] Highlanders and then get involved with the All Blacks against the Lions — this is massively something you want to do as a rugby player.”
Sir Brian Lochore, a giant of a man with hands the size of plates, is sitting in a spectator stand named after himself at Wairarapa stadium, a sports facility in the town of Masterton that was recently renovated at a cost of more than NZ$2m (£1.1m). Lochore is a former All Blacks captain and coach of the side that won the inaugural World Cup in 1987.
“All Black success breeds success for rugby at all levels in New Zealand,” he says. “I think we handled the transition from amateur to the professional era of rugby very well and certainly much better than the home nation unions, who in some cases were dragged kicking and screaming to professionalism.”
The Wairarapa stadium, which includes an artificial turf pitch for use in all weather conditions, is testament to the strong financial position of rugby in New Zealand. The All Black franchise is one of the richest in the world, in spite of the country’s small size. AIG, the US insurance giant, reportedly paid NZ$80m (£45m) in 2012 to put its logo on the team’s jerseys, and signed a new six-year deal in 2016. The team have also secured global sponsorship deals with the likes of Adidas and Gatorade, and boosted the value of TV rights deals. The union made record revenues worth NZ$164m in 2016, up a fifth on the previous year, with about 70 per cent linked to the All Blacks. In contrast, New Zealand’s traditional rivals, Australia and South Africa, which have much larger populations, made NZ$135m and NZ$133m. Funding for provincial rugby grew 56 per cent to NZ$32m, as the national union prioritised grassroots development.
Winning has proved lucrative for New Zealand rugby, and it has also raised the profile of the small country, perched on the edge of the South Pacific. The All Blacks’ trademark black jersey with a silver fern logo has become an instrument of “soft power” for New Zealand’s political leaders, who have presented it as a gift to world leaders, including Chinese president Xi Jinping.
But Lochore warns that the team, and its fans, cannot afford to be complacent. “Our centralised approach, which focused on the national team, gave us a head start. But the other rugby nations are catching up and the All Blacks’ current dominance cannot be taken for granted,” he says.
Earlier this year England equalled the All Blacks’ world record of 18 consecutive wins set in 2016, before losing to Ireland in the Six Nations championship in March. And, in November, Ireland finally beat the All Blacks, by a score of 40-29, the team’s first win against New Zealand in 111 years of trying.
“The Irish, the way they played that day, they deserved to get the result. I think we have learnt a lot from that game,” says Ben Smith. When I ask why he thinks the All Blacks lost, he is tight-lipped, saying that this type of thing is best “discussed behind closed doors”.
My own view is that Ireland’s coach, Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, has sprinkled some of the All Blacks’ magic on to Irish rugby. This weekend the world will see whether Warren Gatland, another New Zealand import who is coaching the Lions, can do the unthinkable and inspire them against all the odds to beat the best sports team in the world in their own back yard.
Keith Quinn, the veteran commentator, is sceptical of that possibility, believing that the All Blacks are continuing to innovate as they plough resources into fresh generations of players. The depth of the All Blacks’ talent pool is demonstrated by the fact that, despite five players from the New Zealand 1st XV retiring after winning the 2015 World Cup, the team have, if anything, become stronger. They set a world record of 18 consecutive wins last October with a new crop of players, including Barrett who succeeded Dan Carter as chief playmaker.
“[Barrett] is faster than Carter and his kicking to the sides is something that Carter hardly ever attempted. The dimension of what players are doing in the number 10 jersey is widening and Barrett is taking it further,” says Quinn. “I can’t see the Lions stopping them.”
Jamie Smyth is the FT’s Australia correspondent
Photographs by Edith Amituanai; Getty Images