Let’s be honest, we all love the exhilarating feeling of winning, but when the underdog takes a win – we go ballistic! In few other sports is our hunger for winning, and our respect for good sportsmanship, so prominently juxta proposed as in the game of rugby. We encourage our teams with gut-gurgling shouts, role-play scuffles in pubs packed with our best mates, followed by roaring war-cries of “yes, yes, yes” when our team finally dives in for a try under the uprights. It’s a thing of beauty, really. Ask any hardened fan or ex-rugby player and they will concur that rugby is not something you watch – you live it; it pulls you into a world where we you can’t help but cheer and shout, and jump up and down.
There’s Only One Dog and That’s The Underdog
In all fairness though, not all teams are created equally. We watch average games, good games and then clashes of Titanic proportions, and I don’t mean the boat. International rugby games offer a certainty that we are in for a treat, which is why test rugby is the queen of all matches; you know it’s going to be tough, tactical, technical, and tense. You can also count on the greats and their tell-tale playing styles such as the French flair, the Bok brutality, the tenacious loose mauls of the Pumas, the lighting fast line-breaks from the Wallabies or the scrumming physicality of an English pack of forwards.
It all feels rather predictable in a way, but there is one team who seem to play in a class of their own; I am talking about the All Blacks. Those marvelous players of the game, who just seem to possess an almost mythical presence and a fine-tuned perspective on the game, always just that one strategic step ahead to the rest of the world’s national teams. Why is this the case? To give a good answer, we need to unpack this question and get a better understanding of how the game of rugby has changed, more importantly, how New Zealand continues to dominate international rugby and why they constantly create new styles and structures of play.
Beauty is Pain
However inevitable change is in our world, it is indeed constant and sometimes it can be the cause of remarkable improvements. Rugby as an international sport, is certainly part of a greater global-culture and the game has been influenced and changed in several ways. Think for example about the different styles of rugby played in Northern and Southern hemispheres. A study of the latest game statistics taken from the Rugby World Cup stats, since its inception in 1987, reveals critical elements and key plays of the game which have indeed changed, some intensely more than others.
Looking at two elements (and there are many more) namely ball-in-play time, and game intensity, we can observe noticeable changes. The 1987 (25:45) and 1995 editions both saw less than 30 minutes ball in play time, 2003 saw just 31:58 minutes of ball in play time, compared to 32:12 minutes in the 2011 cup, and 34:21 in 2019 – that’s a 33% total increase. This dispels the myth that set pieces slow down the modern game and that we see less live action. The physicality of the game has also changed considerably, and players need to display greater levels of fitness as the modern game is physically more demanding with longer periods of uninterrupted play. Comparing the 1987 Rugby World Cup team averages with that of the 2019 series, we note that carries increased by 32% (86 to 115), tackles by 166% (from 48 to 129) and rucks by a staggering 230% (from 25 to 82).
A comparative analysis of the Springbok, Wallaby and Puma team performances (taken courtesy of the 2019 The Rugby Championships Stats website), ranks the All Blacks against their peers as follows:
If we look at the All Black 1st and 2nd placed rankings in the table, it’s evident that the team excels at actions that promote movement, speed, and work-rate. A review of some of the New Zealand based Super Rugby series team stats, follows a similar play-pattern. The All Blacks are clearly great at running, cutting defense lines and stopping attacks, but they seem to perform poorly in other momentum building facets of the game, we would traditionally associate with fast work rates and high volumes of play, these include line breaks, ball carries and quick or short line-outs.
How is it possible that the All Blacks can continuously dominate and play games that create more scoring opportunities, score more tries, generate higher work rates, and more importantly, consistently play each game as such formidable opponents, when the stats tell us a different story?
Is it possible that the secret to their rugby success has less to do with their game tactics and techniques, but that instead, their overall approach and philosophy towards being an All Black player is at the heart of their energy and abilities to generate such high velocity rugby?
What follows is a look into what I believe to be the deep seated principles contained in the All Black psyche, and what is potentially the door that leads to the treasure room of these amazing athletes, and what it really means to be a wearer of the Black Jersey.
X Marks The Spot
In his famous book Legacy, bestselling author, speaker and business consultant, James Kerr, reflects on some of the elements that make the New Zeeland national rugby team one of the best in the world and writes about their principles of leadership, which have been widely adopted and taught across the world, and how it can be applied to business and life. For Kerr, being an All Black is not just about being a rugby player, but one of the ultimate sports achievements. Kerr became a successful business and leadership consultant by developing leadership and change solutions for prominent leaders of world-class teams and organizations, based on the close analysis of the All Black’s focus on principles, their demands from players, leadership and their winning mentality.
According to Kerr, the All Black Team approaches their rugby with a specific game plan and they employ numerous tactical approaches, principles of leadership, life and businesses strategies, and they meet their opponents well prepared and versed in their own game plan and main strategy. A team that wishes to replicate their in-depth structure and well-prepared execution, will need to possess exceptional tactical skills. An opponent’s game plan also needs to be so much more than just key moves, magical line-out calls and code words, it has to contend with the All Black’s game plan which can be summed in two words – arrive prepared.
This Is Sparta!
Without sounding as if I have a royalty agreement with Kerr’s book sales company, I will confess that the book’s opening lines in the first chapter called Character, will cover even the most anti-All Black supporter with goosebumps. With due reference to Kerr (see the link in footnote above if you wish to purchase the book, I can highly recommend that you do), I can’t help but quote a few direct lines taken from Kerr’s book – doing anything less, won’t do it any justice! The chapter is based on a test played at Dunedin, on 19 June 2010, between New Zealand and Wales. On page 3 and 4 Kerr writes the following:
As the jersey go on, so do the “game faces”. The players become All Blacks.
“I can still remember Richie McCaw’s first jersey,” Gilbert Enoka says.
“He spent about forty-five seconds to a minute with his head just buried in the jersey.”
Today is McCaw’s ninety-first test.
“A win today against the Welsh is not enough,” says a pundit. “It has to be a big win.”
In the stadium beer cans rattle against the hoardings. A helicopter thumps overhead. Someone sells T-shirts.
McCaw Steps off the bus. There is a cry, a pöwbiri, the traditional Māori welcome. A lone Māori male with a taiaba, a thrusting spear. There is an explosion of camera flashes.
McCaw accepts the challenge on behalf of the team.
Woman swoon. Men too.
The All Black head for the sheds.
If you swooned too, that’s ok, it is an intense piece of writing about the depth and sense of pride, let alone the experience in real life. My first introduction to the All Black presence, dare I say, mystical presence, was many years ago when I witnessed them perform the famous haka, the well-known pre-match war cry. I was but about 10 years old. While many teams have responded in impressive and sometimes less gentlemanly ways, the idea that opponents stand their ground and face the haka stunned me into adoration. Who in their right mind would want to rugby against these guys after that?
I recall my own boyish marvel and fear upon staring down those battle crazy eyes and an earlier version of the haka, which ended with the team jumping
into air. I still remember, even as I am thinking about it now, that it was like they were preparing to fight, to do battle, to conquer. The closest I ever came to feeling a similar sense of combat come over me was when I heard the famous, almost cult-like line, from the movie 300 when King Leonidas, sends a Persian messenger with a flying kick to his untimely death down a waterfilled pit, while shouting the now famous “This is Sparta!” line. While the All Blacks may not be Spartans, they sure came darn close to sounding like the legendary and brave warriors!
Why Does The Rabbit Smoke His Pipe?
The Cree, is a famous tribe of approximately 350 000 Indians, either alive or with some ancestral links, residing in Canada for many years now, and have been for several generations. The tribe, less known at the time, was made famous when Sir Anthony Hopkins played the role of a highly intelligent billionaire (Charles Morse) camping out in a Canadian cabin with a group friends for a weekend in a praised film called The Edge.
Upon arrival Morse must solve a riddle presented to him by one of the local town’s men. The man holds up a paddle depicting a panther on one side, and asks Morse what is depicted on the other side of the paddle? Being the well-read man he is, Morse answers “A rabbit smoking a pipe”.
To the delight and of his entire entourage. Someone from his crew asks him why the rabbit smokes his pipe, to which Morse answers, “On the one side is the Panther, on the other side his prey, the rabbit, but he is unafraid – he smokes his pipe”. The local town’s man then asks Morse, “Why is the rabbit unafraid?” There is tangible silence when Morse replies, “The rabbit is, unafraid – because he knows he is smarter than the fox”.
This Cree fable perfectly sums up another key element present in the All Black psych – they know they are smarter than their opponents. Knowing is different from believing. Knowing comes from a place of conviction, a cavity where the possibility of an alternative outcome doesn’t exist. It is from this place of personal confidence that the All Black team walks onto the pitch.
The other component, based on the same fable, is the rabbit’s traits of speed, prowess, tenacity, and character. The rabbit is faster, more innovative, more cunning, more mischievous and knows, well in advance, about the presence of the panther. The hunter becomes the hunted. The realization brings peace of mind and allows for a calm demeanour and more time for creative thoughts to flow. It’s this magical combination of work-rate, energy, conviction, and confidence that creates unstoppable momentum. The team who wishes to stop such an onslaught will have to outwit the rabbit.
Show Me Your War Face
1979 saw the publishing of small novel by Gustav Hasford (Bantam Books) called The Short Timers. It would later be made famous by world renowned director and screenplay, Stanley Kubrick in a film called Full Metal Jacket. Besides being wonderfully written and made with Kubrick’s attention to detail, the movie also boasts one the best opening scenes of all Vietnam war movies with a 20-minute continuous rant by the famous drill sergeant (explicit language, parental guidance is advised). During one of these early morning encounters the drill sergeant instructs, in a shouting voice, to one of the recruits to show him his war face. Try as hard as he wants the recruit just never quite scares the sergeant, his unquestionable effort is a moment of military humour at its finest.
While the movie is all about going to war, learning how to become an angry killing machine and how to find your inner warrior – the exact opposite is what makes the All Black team exceptional. Team players are early on taught about the principle of red heads and blue heads; a simple yet effective way of depicting the two choices of play when under pressure. A player can either act like a red head – be all over the place, and let your emotions get the better of you and shroud yourself in acts of frustration and temper tantrums (especially when you are 12 points down in the last quarter), or, you can decide to apply a blue head, which represents staying cool, calm, collected, focused with your emotions under control. What this translates to, in rugby terms, is that a winning team can master their emotions and control how they behave. This principle is deeply entrenched and is far more than the measly application of the “let’s maintain discipline” mantra, or even worse, showing your war-face!
Like the fall of dominoes, a team needs to learn that it takes one poor act of character to cause the fall of all the tiles. To create the ultimate team means to stay and play in the present, to keep a level head which increases focus, which translates into maintaining emotional control. Controlled emotions affects a team’s behaviour, and a team in control of their behaviour, is a team which ultimately determines their own performance.
“Rugby, like business and like life, is a game best played primarily in the mind” – JAMES KERR
Life In The Margins
What is your personal secret or conviction of success? How did you come about believing in this approach? Do you prefer achieving your goals in larger blocks of effort by knuckling down for three-month periods of energy and focus, or do you prefer shorter bursts of energy, expelled over a smaller timespan? James Altucher, famous American author wrote in his first self-published book about the importance of daily incremental gains. It is the compounding effect of all the small things we do every day to improve, that eventually leads us to the success we want. Altucher believes in trying to improve in at least one area of our lives, every day. Improvements can range from eating one healthy item, to doing one extra push up or even reading one page per day. However small or mediocre, we need to try and improve at least one thing each day.
In another inspirational Hollywood masterpiece (Any Given Sunday), we are reminded by an amazing coach (played by the talented Al Pacino) that life is a game of inches and that, if we are willing to fight for those inches, they all add up, and can make the difference between winning or losing (Mr Pacino, of course, shares his ideas in less eloquent terms). At the end of this memorable speech, Pacino ends with the words “either we heal, now as a team, or we will die as individuals”.
The All Black rugby teams takes the principle of being a team, to the extreme – losing that inch is the one thing they fear. Not achieving their goal is what keeps them awake, forces them to work harder. Exceptional achievements become possible when our fear of loss jolts us into action, to frantically chase daily gains. It is not about the one big game plan. It is not about the big session in the gym. It’s not even about that elusive trophy – it’s about all the tiny steps we need to take, in between, that adds up and creates the momentum we need to be successful on and off the pitch. The stuff we fear are the things we are willing to fight against.
Winning teams learn to live in the margins, to love the small gains, they value the small disciplines, the small changes they need to make to be better. A team who fears failure, and who is willing to make the small marginal changes, is a team destined for greatness!
Real Men Become All Blacks
A legacy is defined as something handed down by a predecessor, and even though this may be a special characteristic of the All Black team, it cannot simply be replicated. Culture, tradition, and history cannot be cooked-up overnight. It takes generations and wisdom, fused in the cauldron of adversary and suffering before a nation becomes reborn and aware of their inherent value. The All Black players knows that being part of that elite group means being entrusted with the important task of guardianship, that each generation of players have a period of time, their time, to improve and carefully hand down the traditions and pride of what it means to represent the essence of the sport, and the All Black team, to a new generation of players.
In a short video documentary made in conjunction with Dove for Men, some retired All black legends talk about what it means, to them personally, and the team, to be an All Black rugby player. What is evident from the onset is that to be an All Black is certainly more than just about rugby. It encroaches on character, culture, upbringing, behaviour, dreams and the love for a country and its people. Few nations can honestly say they are so united behind their national team and the sport as the people from New Zealand. Admittedly I am jealous.
The title of the recording, Better People Make Better All Blacks, speaks to the roles and actions on and off the pitch. Who you are on the pitch is who you ought to be when you go off it. This speak of an impeccable awareness and national pride in that, as an All Black, you represent a set of values and that your actions display those values. These values are essentially a representation of the culture of the people, and that culture is structured around the character of men and woman in the sport. They represent traits we can all aspire to.
Every team, in every sport can gain some insight and value by studying the All Blacks. They make more plays, carry more ball, take more chances, innovate more, win more matches, and play more rugby, because they believe it is up to them to be worthy of their team’s respect. It’s like nothing less than combining thunder and lightning will do!
Go Big or Go…
Rugby statistics confirm that nowadays teams are playing a lower-risk form of rugby. The inaugural Rugby World Cup match (1987) saw 30 offloads per match – double the total of the 2019 tournament – and passes out of contact have declined year on year (except in 2011 when we saw a small increase again). We note a correlation between turnovers conceded and a risk-averse style of play. The total conceded in the 2019 Rugby World Cup was about 50% that of the 1987 edition.
In spite of the great numbers of legendary teams and players, and the ways in which the game has changed over many years, the All Blacks somehow maintains a unique orientation and mindset towards winning and they exert a noticeable influence on the game. They possess a willingness to be bold. Their rugby philosophy is tied to their belief that becoming an All Black should be the ultimate life goal for every New Zealand born rugby player, indeed for every human being.
Greatness, it would seem, starts the day we expect nothing less from ourselves, but to win!
About the Author:
Ivan is a freelance writer and specialises in creating digital content for clients on marketing, branding and thought leadership within the Medicine, Healthcare, Senior Living and Mental Wellbeing sectors. Ivan has more than 20years of senior and executive management experience in various industries, and can be contacted at pencilthis.com