• The All Blacks – Just Another Team?

    The All Whites’ success reminds us yet again of the remarkable sporting record achieved by this tiny country which has for much of its short life been only about half as big – in population terms – as the City of Birmingham. When we add to the All Whites’ exploits the success enjoyed over the years by our teams in rugby league, softball, hockey, and cricket and the individual triumphs in athletics, rowing, cycling, equestrian events – the list is endless – we can see how much we punch above our weight in international terms.

    Yet none of this – remarkable as it is – remotely approaches our record of achievement in a sport which is truly international and which could be regarded as one of the three or four most important team games in world sport. The All Blacks, who have again this week resumed their number one world ranking, have dominated the sport of rugby union for more than a century.

    No other country gets even close. Over the whole history of rugby as an international sport, the All Blacks’ record is incomparable. This is not to say that the All Blacks always win, or are not at times overshadowed briefly by others. But year-in year-out, the All Blacks have established a statistical record that makes them the “winningest” national team not only in rugby but in any international sport.

    Look at the figures. The All Blacks have over more than a century achieved a winning percentage in all their international matches of 74%. The next best percentage among major rugby nations is South Africa’s, at 63%, with the French, English and the Australians coming next at 55%, 53% and 52% respectively. All of these competitors trailing in our wake have both populations and in most cases rugby player numbers much greater than ours.

    What’s more, the All Blacks have a positive winning record against every other international team. Even after three successive defeats this year against the Springboks, our winning ratio against them is 42 to 33. The record against another proud rugby nation – Wales – is 22 to 3.

    Nor do the statistics tell the whole story. The “aura” of the All Blacks (something debated in some quarters over recent days) means not only that they are the best-known and admired rugby team in the world – the one that others most want to play and beat – but they are probably the most famous national team in world sport. The haka, the black jersey, the silver fern, are potent symbols of sporting success. Whereas the rugby teams of other nations are usually referred to by their country’s name, the All Blacks have established their own powerful identity.

    One consequence of this success is that the All Blacks are hugely important to New Zealand’s national identity. For millions of people around the world, the All Blacks are what they know best (or perhaps all they know) about New Zealand. Their perception of our country is formed by what they see and know of the All Blacks.

    And who can doubt the significance of the All Blacks in the development of how we feel about ourselves as a nation? Together with our experience on the battlefields of two world wars, nothing has contributed more to our sense of nationhood than our success on the world’s rugby fields. It is no accident that rugby is a game that requires great individual skills, courage, strength and resilience but also requires the individual to subordinate his or her interests to those of the team – exactly the qualities required to build our small nation from the earliest days.

    And what a happy miracle that the qualities required were not only those demanded of the earliest settlers but were also displayed in abundance by the tangata whenua. Rugby asked our two founding cultures to make common cause by bringing to their enjoyment of the game an arena where they could also learn mutual respect. Rugby has done much to bring our society together.

    Given the success of rugby and its importance to New Zealand, how surprising it is to find, at least in some quarters, that in recent times rugby is denigrated, the All Blacks diminished. Yes, of course, we should celebrate sporting success in other arenas, but we can surely do so without demeaning our achievements in rugby. It is almost as though some journalists and commentators resent our rugby success, or (reflecting their profession’s constant quest for novelty) have grown bored with it. They seize upon the chance offered by success elsewhere to compare rugby unfavourably with the latest (usually transient) triumph.

    The All Blacks, and rugby’s administrators, make their fair share of mistakes, and should not be immune from criticism for doing so. But do the carping (and sometimes sneering) critics realise what a national taonga they so carelessly demean? Do we have to do ourselves an unnecessary injury by thoughtlessly devaluing something we might appreciate fully only when we have lost it?

    Bryan Gould

    18 November 2009

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 20 November.