How good are the All Blacks, really?
As stated above, the All Blacks are the best rugby team in the world at the moment. In fact, they are the most successful rugby team to ever play the game. Now, that in itself is extremely impressive, but what takes the All Blacks’ reputation up into the stratosphere is that — if you do a bit of research — you find that they are actually the most successful sports franchise in history.
Like, of any sport.
Currently, their winning percentage since they played their first official game in 1903 stands at just under 78%. That’s better than Brazil in football or Australia in cricket. They’ve won the last two Rugby World Cups and have been ranked number one in the world for almost a decade running.
So, yeah, they’re not too shabby at throwing the old egg around.
So, the question is, how does a country produce such a consistently victorious team? Well, it sure does help if you have a large population to choose from. If we take Brazil and their football team, or Australia and their formidable cricketers; these countries have, respectively, 207 million and 24 million people to choose from.
New Zealand has 4.7 million.
So, it doesn’t seem that population is the pivotal reason to success. Let’s take a look from the beginning of the road that could potential lead to All Blacks fame.
Growing up with rugby
Rugby is such an integral part of New Zealand culture now that at the end of every school day you will see young kids walking home from school, barefooted, tossing about a rugby ball. It’s said that one of the first thing that Kiwi kids learn at school is to catch, pass, catch pass.
As children grow up the rugby never stops, and trying to stop the hair-raising tackles that are part and parcel of lunchtime rugby games, is the bane of many a teacher’s career. This brings up another aspect of growing up as a Kiwi kid; the fact that all New Zealand children go to schools with big green playing fields for them to run free on during their breaks, and run about basically all year round.
New Zealand kids really are free-range. Factor in rugby balls for practically everyone, and schools that are refreshingly free of the bureaucratic worrywart mentality that doesn’t allow kids to go out and get into a few scrapes — something which afflicts many, many western countries now — and you’re encouraging a new breed of New Zealand rugby stars.
When you’ve been bitten by the rugby bug at the age of five, told tales of such great heroes as Jonah Lomu, George Nepia, Sir Colin Meads and Buck Shelford — a player who infamously walked off the pitch, casually got stitched up on national television and then played on after his scrotum was ripped open by a French boot — and then funneled into junior teams routinely named “The Small Blacks,” it’s of no surprise that rugby becomes all that matters.
Taking this childish propensity for throwing a ball about and running into each other at speed, it’s during high-school that things get turned up a gear. Like elsewhere in the world, kids that show a real talent and enthusiasm for rugby when they’re young can find themselves offered scholarships to some of the most reputable schools in the country. The top rugby schools in New Zealand can spend up to $400,000 NZD a year on their rugby programs, which goes to show the extent of their conviction in producing future All Blacks, and the prestige it brings.
Some high-school games can attract audiences of over 7000 spectators. The schools themselves employ the likes of ice-baths, professional physiotherapists and weight rooms to help their players perform at their peak. The two biggest matches of the schoolboy season even get broadcast on Sky Sports New Zealand. This means that talented kids — who can be playing in their First XI teams from the age of fourteen — are basically surrounded by all the facets of the professional game from the word go.
The cultural mix
As well as the European — or “pakeha” — influence in New Zealand, the fact that the genetic makeup of the country includes the power, strength and speed found in Maori and Polynesian blood must be properly appreciated. Players of Maori, Tongan, Fijian and other Pacific Island descent are formidable opponents when it comes to this contact sport. Just take a look at the imposing but affable figure of the incredible Julian Savea — nicknamed “The Bus” — who scored the most tries in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and stands 6ft 4in tall and weighs 108kg.
The expectation and the attitude
Lastly, New Zealanders on the whole have become used to the All Blacks and their winning ways. They come to expect the team to triumph over all comers. With the expectation of a nation on their shoulders every time they step out on the pitch, you’d think the All Blacks might find it tricky to retain their winning ways.
Happily though, a never-say-die attitude combined with always giving it a go, no matter the odds — which Kiwis in general are so admired for — means that the All Blacks always perform and always field their strongest team. No matter if it’s at the end of the season, or a World Cup Finals.
And the results speak for themselves.