• What Makes the All Blacks So Good?

    Both in the run-up to and during the aftermath of the All Blacks’ narrow victory over England at Twickenham, the world’s rugby media posed a frequently asked question – how can a small country with a population of only 4 million produce not only the All Blacks (who have dominated world rugby for most of the last century) but also women’s teams and age-grade teams who have been similarly successful in all forms of rugby.

    The question is not lightly asked – it reflects a genuine puzzlement.  It is assumed that the answer lies in some secret ingredient, an insight or a technique, that could readily be copied by other teams if only they knew what it was.

    The bad news for the inquirers is that there is nothing mysterious about New Zealand’s rugby pre-eminence.  The simple truth is that Kiwis are just better attuned to the game, understand it better and accordingly are usually able to play it better than others.

    For those who know New Zealand’s history and culture, there is nothing surprising about this.  Rugby was the game that could have been invented specifically for New Zealand – and they have returned the compliment by influencing its development so that it now reflects the way they play it.

    Rugby was first introduced at a time when modern New Zealand was in the early stages of development in the mid-nineteenth century.  The remote islands in the south Pacific were settled by “get-up-and-goers” from Britain and Ireland – those who got up and went, because they saw the opportunities offered by a new life in a new country.

    Developing that new country demanded two main characteristics – on the one hand, a huge degree of self-reliance and hard work, supplemented by the determination never to be defeated by by an apparently insoluble problem, and on the other, an understanding of the great value of teamwork and a willingness to trust and rely on one’s neighbours and comrades.

    Miraculously, these new settlers (the pakeha) discovered in the indigenous population – the Maori – similar attitudes and values.  These shared attitudes – a healthy individualism combined with an instinctive readiness to work as a team – helped greatly in the creation of a bicultural society; and they found their most immediate expression on the rugby field.  Maori and pakeha found that rugby offered them the chance to play and learn together and to appreciate the qualities that each brought to the game.

    Rugby became not only the most obvious expression of what were seen as the essential New Zealand virtues but also provided a kind of lens through which Maori and pakeha could see each other.  The game became one of the most important formative influences in the evolution of the new nation.

    When New Zealand teams take the field, their Polynesian players (both Maori and Pasifika) with all their great talents are not expensively imported from far-away countries but have grown up with rugby in their own country.  The game is woven into the fabric of their lives – one that both Maori and pakeha instinctively understand and relate to, and that in part defines them.

    Yes, of course New Zealand rugby teams enjoy an advantage over their rivals.  They grow up in a society that lives and breathes rugby; many of the country’s best athletes opt to play rugby because that is where they can best shine, and where the best sporting brains focus on the game and how to play it better.

    It was somehow appropriate that the Twickenham test was played on the eve of the centenary of Armistice Day – an opportunity to acknowledge the sacrifice made by – amongst others – young New Zealand soldiers who volunteered to travel half way round the world to fight at Gallipoli and on the western front.  A huge percentage of the small New Zealand population went to that war and there was scarcely a family that was not affected by the bereavement and injury of loved ones.

    Those soldiers showed on the battle field many of the qualities that the All Blacks bring to the rugby field.  War, like rugby, was the other great formative influence in the development of the New Zealand identity.

    Our feel for and appreciation of rugby should help us not only to celebrate an All Blacks victory but also to understand the disappointment felt by England supporters who saw victory snatched from them by a contentious (but probably correct) refereeing decision.

    But we should also recognise that, if the try had been allowed, the All Blacks would then have had a few minutes to score the converted try that would have won the game for them – and who would have bet against them doing just that?

  • The All Blacks Aren’t Done Yet

    The All Blacks may have retained the Bledisloe Cup, won the Rugby Championship with a game to spare, and beaten both the Wallabies and the Pumas twice in a row, but their single loss to the Springboks and their dramatic last-minute, come-from-behind win in the second match against the Boks has, predictably enough, sparked speculation in the northern hemisphere rugby press that the end of the All Blacks’ dominance of world rugby is now in sight. And even their narrow win over the Boks, according to the critics, was achieved only because they scored more points!

    As Steve Hansen remarked, there is no shortage of those who want to see the All Blacks fall from the top of the tree. But those of us who have followed the All Blacks for a lifetime and who can therefore take a longer view might advise that any celebration of the All Blacks’ impending demise is premature.

    I was brought up to celebrate All Black victories, and those victories have come with impressive regularity over a period of more than 110 years. But that should not obscure the fact that over that long period of pre-eminence, spanning virtually the whole of the history of modern rugby, there have been peaks but, comparatively speaking, troughs as well, from all of which the All Blacks have aways re-asserted themselves as the world’s leading and most successful team.

    Inevitably, it is the troughs that make the greater impact and that stick in the memory. My first recollection of test rugby is of 1949, when a brilliant All Blacks team toured South Africa and lost the series 4-0, courtesy of a Springbok forward called Okey Geffin who took advantage of some home-town refereeing and kicked goals from all parts of the park.

    The Springboks visited New Zealand in 1956 and I recall sleeping out on the Wellington pavement to get tickets for the second test. The All Blacks lost that test but won the series 3-1. Proper order was restored.

    Despite the current fancy that the Wallabies are our major rivals, I have alway believed that it is the Springboks who are our most dangerous challengers – a view borne out by their beating us in the 1995 World Cup final, and by years such as 2009 when they beat us three times in a row.

    It is worth making the point that these reverses did little to change the overwhelming reality that the All Blacks remained for virtually the whole of the period the world’s pre-eminent team. Neither our occasional and painful losses to the Springboks and our even more infrequent defeats by other teams like Ireland – in Chicago, on a rare occasion when the All Black management took a match too lightly and paid the price – did anything to dent the All Blacks’ record of superiority.

    However good the All Blacks are, however, international rugby is, as it should be, highly competitive and the slightest stumble from their high standards by the All Blacks can mean defeat. That is why each All Blacks victory is worth so much and is so much to be celebrated. These victories are hard-won and their regularity is testament to the immensely high standards achieved by the team, decade after decade.

    Is there really any sign that the All Blacks’ dominance is about to end? I think not. Yes, there are challenges, not so much on as off the field, where the lure of high salaries paid in the northern hemisphere could mean a haemorrhage of top players from the New Zealand game.

    But the New Zealand conveyor belt that delivers new and talented players to the game every year, the structure of the game and the prestige of the All Blacks, and the fact that we have the best coaches and thinkers in the game all continue to function and to keep us ahead of the pack.

    Let our rivals and critics take what comfort they can from our occasional reverse. The history of the past 110 years should give us the confidence to believe that the strengths and virtues of All Blacks rugby will endure. Our opponents should concentrate on trying to catch up. The time for them to celebrate will be when, and if, they do.

    Bryan Gould
    9 October 2018


  • Life Jackets Are Needed

    As we sit on our deck in the spring sunshine at Ohiwa and enjoy the warmer temperatures, we notice each day another unmistakable sign that spring is upon us. There is a large and growing number of small boats out in the bay – some, presumably, fishing, others just “messing about in boats”.

    Sadly, it reminds us that we will no doubt soon hear another rash of stories about lives lost at sea – many of those casualties involving those who should have, but weren’t, wearing life jackets.

    The constant urgings that people going to sea in small boats should wear life jackets seem to make little impression on those macho guys who think that it is “sissy” to take such precautions or on those who complain about the “nanny state” and say that it should be left to individual choice.

    The debate, such as it is, is reminiscent of the arguments when the law requiring seat belts was introduced. The same tired old objections were trotted out then – we should be allowed to make our own decisions and “a seat belt won’t help, but will make it more difficult to escape from a burning car”.

    But, with the carnage on our roads refusing to reduce and the undeniable evidence that the injuries suffered by those not wearing seat belts are greater than they need be, that debate seems now pretty much resolved.

    But was there ever any substance in the argument that the decision on whether or not to wear seat belts (or life jackets) should be left to individual choice? Is it really the case that it is no one else’s business and that there is no wider interest in trying to bring down the drowning toll?

    The first point to make is that the owner or skipper of the boat is usually not the only one involved. There will almost always be others on board and they will usually do what the skipper tells them or at least follow his example. If they are children, or inexperienced abut being at sea, the skipper has a special responsibility to them and their families to set the right example.

    And that is to say nothing of those, professionals or volunteers, who might be required to risk their own lives to save those whose lives are threatened because they couldn’t be bothered to look after themselves.

    But the consequences of setting the wrong example, with the result that lives are unnecessarily lost, go wider than that. Every life lost at sea will impact on others and will have consequences that society as a whole will often have to deal with. As the poet John Donne famously said, “No man is an island unto himself”. A family member who drowns will leave behind not just a sense of loss and grief for the bereaved family but perhaps, as well, dependants who will need to be supported – and such burdens will often become the responsibility of the wider society.

    We all have an interest, in other words, in trying to save lives through such small, practical (and surely not difficult) measures as wearing seat belts or installing smoke alarms or getting a Warrant of Fitness for our cars or, let us be clear, wearing life jackets. There is nothing very macho about not using your common sense and putting the lives of others unnecessarily at risk.

    From our vantage point above the great Pacific Ocean as it rolls in inexorably and on to our beach, we have on memorable and tragic occasions watched as boats have got into trouble and have foundered on the rocks further along the coast, with – inevitably – some loss of life. We have no wish to bear witness to similar tragedies in future, especially if they turn out to have been avoidable if only the simplest of precautions had been taken.

    Bryan Gould
    12 September 2018

  • A Good Man

    Writing a weekly column requires that one should keep a close eye on, with a view to commenting on, the major events of the past week. President Trump’s latest travails or mis-steps, the latest ups and downs of domestic politics, the risks posed by major developments like global warming, the deficiencies of major organisations – these are usually the stuff of a weekly column.

    But every now and again, events much closer to home – more personal and emotional – take precedence. And so it was last week, when I attended the funeral of my much-loved brother-in-law, Douglas John Weir Short.

    Doug died after a long illness as he approached his 82nd birthday. He was a dairy farmer and kiwi-fruit orchardist who had lived and farmed all his life at Te Mawhai, just outside Te Awamutu, until he eventually retired to Tauranga.

    In his earlier years, he had been a very good sportsman, playing rugby for Waikato at junior level and was also an excellent tennis player, as I learned after many hard sets against him on his family’s tennis court.

    As a young man, he took over the successful dairy farm developed by his father, Jack, and as a farmer and orchardist, he was superb. He had a lively and enquiring mind and was always seeking better ways of doing things. He was in many ways an engineer manque, and he took great pride and pleasure in the successful engineering career of his son, David.

    He was also the hardest worker you were ever like to meet. As a young man, he would spend the summer hay-baling for the farms in the district, putting in many long, hard, hot days when he would rather have been at the beach. He did everything at top pace and optimal commitment.

    But Doug was most of all a family man. To him, family was everything. As his children and grandchildren movingly testified at his funeral, he was a wonderful father and grandfather, always supportive and loving and, most of all, fun. His love and concern for family extended well beyond the nuclear family and embraced all those within the wider family; my son, Charles, on his “OE” in New Zealand from the UK, was taken under Doug’s wing, and my own grandchildren recall with pleasure and sadness the fun they had, when little, as they prepared him, by scattering herbs over him as he lay on our sofa, to be “barbecued”.

    I had been his best man when he married my sister, Ngaire, and it was undoubtedly the close relationship that my wife Gill and I, back home on holiday from the UK, developed with Ngaire and Doug, on memorable touring holidays together in the South Island, that was a major factor in our decision to come back to New Zealand to live.

    My excuse for writing on this theme is not just a wish to pay tribute to a good, kind and decent man. I think the story of Doug Short’s life and of the contribution he made and of how much he meant to his family and community has a wider significance.

    It is people like Doug, up and down our great country, who have been the bedrock on which New Zealand society has been built over generations. We all owe him, and people like him, a great deal, and that debt requires us to go on building, in their memory, the good society they helped to create.

    Unlike me, Doug had little time for politics, but he provided an object lesson for us all – on how to lead a life that was worthwhile and well lived. His last years were tragic, in that he could hardly move though illness. But it will be Doug Short in his heyday who will live on in the memories of all those who knew and loved him.

    Bryan Gould
    29 August 2018

  • Noise Pollutes

    Yesterday was wonderfully warm and sunny at Ohiwa Beach where we live in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Our enjoyment of the winter sunshine, as we sat on our deck overlooking the beach, was however ruined by the noise made by a small motor cycle as it roared up and down the beach for a couple of hours.

    The bike was ridden by a boy of school age who obviously relished the sense of freedom and speed produced by riding at full throttle. He would no doubt have been surprised to be asked to desist, on the ground that he was spoiling the enjoyment of many others (and not least that of a seal sunning itself on the beach); and in today’s selfish age, he would not have thought for a moment of doing so.

    The incident brought home to me, however, a truth that can easily be overlooked. At a time when we are becoming more conscious of our environment, we may not always recognise that one of the most pervasive forms of pollution is noise pollution.

    There is of course growing evidence that high levels of persistent noise pollution can be very bad for one’s health, but I do not go so far as to suggest that yesterday’s young motorcyclist and his joyriding were a threat to our health or to the wider environment. But I am very much aware that there are others in our society for whom incessant high levels of noise are a real obstacle to the quiet enjoyment of their living space.

    Those who live close to Auckland airport, for example, put up with the sound of aircraft landing and taking off every few minutes throughout the daylight hours and beyond. Many would no doubt say – “what do you expect if you live near to an airport?” But the affected residents reply that the noise levels have, over recent years, risen to intolerable levels and frequency, and that, since no one seems concerned to do anything about it, the prospects are that it will get even worse.

    The general reaction to complaints about this phenomenon is that it is the price “we” (or at least “they”) must pay for the boom in tourism and for the greater efficiencies achieved by our airlines, and by Air New Zealand in particular – and there is no doubt that these factors have played an important part in creating a greater noise nuisance for those living under the flight paths.

    There are now many more aircraft in the air, but there are other factors that have – the residents say unnecessarily – made the problem worse than it need be. The planes themselves are bigger and, in order to save fuel (and fuel costs), they fly lower and slower – and therefore more noisily) as they come in to land.

    The technology that enables them to fly safely as they land has also developed and changed. New navigational systems (such as Next Gen) allow the incoming planes to fly more precisely so that they can land in greater numbers in a shorter time; the residents find the increase in the number of aircraft movements an additional burden to bear.

    It is not hard to identify those who benefit from such developments. Air New Zealand has been able to produce record profits, and has been congratulated and thanked for doing so by its principal shareholder, the government.

    And so, the issue resolves itself in the end into a familiar trade-off – on the one hand, the ordinary citizen and the environment in which he or she attempts to live a good and enjoyable life and, on the other, the interests and profitability of big business and the willingness of the wider public to see the one sacrificed for the other.

    Our fellow-citizens are surely entitled to expect from the government they have elected to represent their interests, not least against the rich and powerful, (isn’t that the point of democracy?) that a better and fairer balance will be struck. To shrug the shoulders and say “too bad” or “that’s the way it is” is not good enough.

    It’s time we understood that the argument that “it’s good for business” is not and should not be the last word, and leads us into a dead end.

    Bryan Gould
    13 July 2018