• 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?