• More Than “A Decade of Dominance”

    When the All Blacks play Scotland at Murrayfield next Monday, it will be just over ten years since they last lost to one of the Six Nations countries on their own ground (the 2007 loss to France was at Cardiff). This “decade of dominance” – as it has been described by Northern hemisphere rugby writers – is just one more indication of how remarkably New Zealand has dominated the world game over its whole history.

    The All Blacks’ triumph in the World Cup tournament at home last year is of course still fresh in the memory. But that elusive victory is only one small part of the uniquely successful record they have established over more than a century of international rugby.

    The current All Blacks are the number one-ranked team, according to the International Rugby Board’s ranking system. Their margin over the second-ranked team is as great as the spread covering the next six teams and as a margin of superiority is surpassed only by – you’ve guessed it – an earlier All Blacks team.

    They have just won the inaugural Rugby Championship, having beaten each of the other three contenders (which include the second and third-ranked teams in the world) both at home and away. This success follows their record – in the predecessor of this competition – of having won more often than the other contenders combined.

    The All Blacks have the distinction of almost certainly being the “winningest” team in the whole history of international team sport. The Australians at cricket or the Brazilians at football come nowhere near the All Blacks’ winning percentage of just on 76% of all the test matches they have played against all-comers over 107 years. That ratio of wins comfortably exceeds the next-best Springboks on 62%; and, not surprisingly, reflects the fact that the All Blacks have a positive win-to-loss ratio against every opponent over the same period.

    As the All Blacks approach their end-of-season Northern tour, we should remind ourselves that three of the Six Nations countries have never beaten the All Blacks in a century of trying – and, in the case of Wales, their last victory came nearly sixty years ago. (I well remember being allowed to get up at 3 am to listen to Winston McCarthy’s commentary from the warmth of my parents’ bed, and how distraught I was, as a 13 year-old, when the All Blacks went down 13-8).

    That match stands out because, as is true for most teams, victories over the All Blacks have been so rare that a one-off or occasional triumph lives on in the annals of the successful opponent. Indeed, so great an achievement is a win against the All Blacks believed to be that their best-remembered matches around the world are often their occasional losses rather than their many wins.

    Not surprisingly, and as the recent $80 million sponsorship deal with AIG demonstrates, the All Blacks own the most potent brand in any major sport played internationally by national teams. It is no exaggeration to say that the All Blacks are the most widely recognised aspect of our international profile – something we can celebrate not only for sporting reasons but for what it tells the world about our bicultural heritage and multicultural society.

    But it is not just the All Blacks who represent New Zealand’s record of rugby success. The Chiefs’ win in the Super Rugby competition this year contributed to the impressive eleven wins by New Zealand teams in that competition’s seventeen-year history. The New Zealand Sevens team are the current holders of the IRB trophy and have an unsurpassed winning record in the history of the competition, as well as a series of Gold Medal wins in the Commonwealth Games. The Black Ferns are the current holders of the Women’s World Cup and have won the trophy on the past four occasions, dating back to 1998. New Zealand lost the final of the Under-20 World Cup this year to South Africa but had been champions for the preceding four years.

    Individuals as well as teams stand out. New Zealand players are prized in rugby teams across the globe, as are New Zealand coaches. Of the twenty teams at the World Cup tournament last year, five were coached by New Zealanders.

    These achievements are so comprehensive and longstanding that it is easy to become blasé. There is a tendency to take it all for granted, and to look for excitement and novelty elsewhere. Yet, as a contributor to a British newspaper remarked wonderingly last month, “how could a small country of only a few million stay at the top of a world sport for so long?”

    Even those who take little interest in rugby or even actively dislike it should be able to feel some pride in New Zealand rugby’s achievements. They can surely take some comfort from the fact that today’s teams are led by fine men and women as well as by fine players. And in Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, we have two of the finest players ever to take the field. I tell my grandsons that they will be able to tell their grandchildren that they saw the great Richie McCaw and the great Dan Carter play.

    Bryan Gould

    29 October 2012

  • England’s HaKa – the HoKey-CoKey

    The England rugby team are on track to complete their preparations for the Rugby World Cup according to the plan laid down by coach, Martin Johnson.

    England’s warm–up games have not so far shown the sort of form that suggests that they are real contenders for the title, but Johnson declares himself satisfied with where they are.

    “We are what we are, and we must work with what we have,” Johnson says. But he acknowledges that a change of identity is an important part of the plan.

    “The first step in the plan has been achieved,” he says. “The players are getting used to the black uniform, and no longer cringe with embarrassment when they put on the black jersey. We have encouraged the team to wear the black jersey in a wide range of situations – in bed, going to the supermarket, joining in riots, so that they cease to think of it as anything out of the ordinary. They now have some sense of what it feels like to be in a team with a better than 75% win rate over 106 years.”

    Johnson agrees that many members of his squad were World Cup winners eight years ago. “Advancing age is an insidious condition, though,” he says, “and memories have faded over the years. Most of those players remember nothing other than that the way to win is to do nothing until the last minute and then give the ball to Johnny to drop a goal. We needed some way of reviving memories for the players who have difficulty remembering 2003 of what it means to be in a world-class team.”

    England have worked hard to change the composition of the team – again with a view to updating its identity. “We have to move on from 2003,” he says, “and we need to introduce new – that is to say, non-English elements – into the team.”

    “We have worked hard to ensure that a high proportion of the players introduced since 2003 are not English. This seems to us to be our best bet for matching what overseas teams are able to achieve.”

    “In particular, I have been keen to put anyone with a vaguely Polynesian name and/or appearance straight into the team. It all helps to create the illusion for the players that might be able to play as well as Samoa.”

    Johnson revealed that there are still some tricks up his sleeve. “We will require team members, including the non-Polynesian minority, to acquire tattoos before the World Cup.” He rejected suggestions that being tattooed was a long, arduous, and exhausting process. “In line with our approach that it is perception rather than reality that matters, we have purchased a high-quality range of transfers that players can choose from the night before a match. Players can choose from a wide range of options, including “Kiss me quick” and “My old man’s a dustman.”

    Johnson was unwilling, however, to say much about what we understand is regarded by England’s management as potentially the coup de grace. We are led to believe that England are concerned at the advantage that they see the All Blacks as gaining from the haka. Work is well advanced on an English equivalent – something that will intimidate opponents and gain a psychological advantage for England.

    Johnson was dismissive of earlier efforts made by other teams to match the haka. In particular, he poked fun at the Australian use of Waltzing Matilda in trans-Tasman matches. “No one is going to be too terrified of a single guy strumming a guitar and singing a song about a dancing sheila,” he scoffed.

    We understand that the first effort at an English haka focused on the Morris dance. After several practices in secret, however, this idea was junked. “The tinkling bells, pretty ribbons, and skipping steps didn’t quite do it,” according to one well-placed observer (thought to be Steve Thompson who, it is reported, didn’t feel that it was quite him), “and it took us twenty minutes to change out of our gear when we had finished and into the black uniform.”

    We understand on good authority that the current plan is to do the hokey-cokey. “Performed by large men, singing loudly and scowling, it will, we think, produce the right effect,” says the same well-placed authority. “Putting your left leg in and then your left leg out in unison can seem very impressive and intimidating. And, like the haka, it has a cultural history that makes it a real statement of English resolve.”

    More work is needed however. It seems that the front-row are having difficulty in distinguishing their left legs from their right legs. Martin Johnson, though, is not deterred. “If the team can get this difficult technical exercise right, then the World Cup should be a piece of cake.”

    Bryan Gould

    16 August 2011

  • Arise, Sir Robbie

    Arise, Sir Robbie!

    The New Zealand Rugby Union has attracted its fair share of criticism over the years, so we should not begrudge it the plaudits for devising and then implementing a strategy that has been brilliantly successful.

    The outcome of that strategy is there for all to see – nine straight wins against the Wallabies, the Bledisloe Cup in New Zealand hands for an eighth straight year, and the All Blacks encouraged by those successes to approach next year’s World Cup with justifiable confidence and the knowledge that one of their most dangerous rivals is firmly on the back foot.

    While the results may be obvious, the strategy that produced them is not well understood, and nor should it be. Indeed, secrecy and subterfuge were the essential keys to success; but those who devised the scheme could never have foreseen that the secret could have been maintained for so long. It is only now, when the penny is about to drop, that the true story can be told.

    That story began in the immediate aftermath of the terrible disappointment of New Zealand’s failure in the 2007 World Cup in France. Within a week of the end of that tournament, New Zealand’s rugby bosses held a crisis meeting in secret to see what could be rescued from the wreckage and what course could be followed to ensure the right result next time.

    The first issue for resolution was coaching. The team led by Graham Henry was widely seen to have failed, and there was considerable pressure to move quickly to appoint a new coach. The call for a new appointment was of course greatly strengthened by the evident availability of a well-qualified replacement.

    The strategists were initially tempted to make a clean break and start the 2011 World Cup campaign with a fresh coaching team. There was of course some reluctance to ditch Graham Henry and his colleagues, whose record – apart from the 2007 defeat to France – had been impressive. There was a strong belief that they might still deliver the World Cup victory that the country craved.

    It was at this point, as they wrestled with the complexities of what to do next, that the outline of a daring plan was conceived. It is not clear who first had the idea – an idea so outrageous that it was at first dismissed out of hand.

    But, as the rugby bosses thought more about the plight they were in, the conviction grew that something extraordinary was needed, and that there was a chance – a slim chance – that the more unthinkable the plan, the better the chance of success.

    They realised that the first task would be to hoodwink the man whom many regard as the sharpest operator in rugby – the Australian rugby supremo, John O’Neill, the man who singlehandedly out-manoeuvred the NZRU and walked away with sole rights to the 2003 Rugby World Cup tournament. If they could suck him in to the plan, the rest would become so much easier.

    What was needed, of course, was the right man for the job. And, as luck would have it, the answer was at hand. The very man whose credentials made him a real contender for the All Blacks coaching role, and whose candidature accordingly created a real dilemma for the NZRU, was the one person who might have a chance of pulling off the coup.

    So, a top-level deputation was sent to Christchurch. They talked far into the night. There was, of course, an initial disbelief and outright rejection, then a reluctant consideration of the chances of success, and finally – in the early hours – a simple handshake. The deal was done.

    The rest of course is history. The initial result – a Wallaby win – was agreed upon as the necessary confirmation that the deal would stick. The original expectation was that the plot would be uncovered after five or six Wallaby defeats. Nine All Black victories on the trot, and an unshakeable grip on the Bledisloe Cup, have exceeded all expectations.

    But, it now seems inevitable that, with his keen eye for a conspiracy, Peter de Villiers will bust the plot wide open. And even John O’Neill’s credulity has its limits. By the time he is brought face to face with reality, however, the damage will be irretrievable – at least on any time line that culminates with next year’s World Cup.

    Robbie Deans, finally unmasked, will return home a hero.

    Bryan Gould

    9 August 2010

  • The World’s Best

    We know that the All Blacks have again struck top form when overseas rugby writers start to talk about “peaking too soon” and to mutter darkly about “choking” at World Cup time. It is almost as though they need to comfort themselves with the thought that, despite the evidence of their own eyes, the All Blacks cannot be as pre-eminent as their results and the manner of achieving them show that they are.

    The comfort is of course illusory and the criticism is fatuous. The “choker” label is an undeserved slur. The All Blacks win a higher proportion of their international matches than any other international team in any sport, and they accordingly bear a heavier weight of expectation than anyone else, but even they win just three out of every four matches. On any given day, there are at least three or four teams who could beat the All Blacks. In any World Cup tournament therefore, the odds must be against the All Blacks (and even more in the case of other teams) winning seven matches in a row – and the nature of the competition is such that one loss in the latter stages is enough.

    While the disappointments of successive World Cup campaigns are real enough, they reflect the capricious and unpredictable nature of a knock-out event rather than any mental frailty on the part of the All Blacks. This is, after all, a team that isn’t content to focus on one tournament every four years but is ready to defend its superb, century-long record every time it steps on the field. That record is not maintained and enhanced by a team of chokers, as we see again from the triumphs of the past two weeks.

    But it is not just overseas that the All Blacks are at times written down. Even at home, it is apparently fashionable to suggest that the New Zealand public’s support for rugby and the All Blacks is not what it was, while other sports and other successes are lauded. It is almost as though the All Blacks’ amazing record has become old hat for media that are hungry for novelty.

    Unscientific opinion polls are produced to show that “only” two-thirds of Kiwis support the All Blacks and – shock horror – one in ten “hate” rugby. It seems not to be realised that such a result, even if accurate, would demonstrate the centrality of rugby in New Zealand life, rather than the reverse. No one would “hate” a sport that mattered little or that made no impact.

    But, as it happens, we have had the chance over recent weeks to make a fresh assessment of the merits of rugby and of our number-one world-rated team. The Football World Cup in South Africa has been followed by the opening matches of rugby’s Tri Nations – and we don’t need to belittle the skill required for football and the spirit shown by the All Whites to conclude that the two recent rugby tests have shown us an altogether superior spectacle.

    Television coverage of the World Cup revealed that football is a game in which it is relatively hard to score, the ball gets moved up and down the field for long periods while little happens, the chances of a draw are very high and teams are often tempted to play for that inherently unsatisfactory result, and goals often come out of the blue with little build-up to stir the blood. The appeal of football as a spectator sport depends greatly on the atmosphere created and passion shown at big matches by supporters who flock to the grounds and who largely entertain themselves.

    Rugby at its best (and I mean union rather than league – union is a more varied, complex, demanding and therefore interesting proposition than that offered by the staccato and relatively simple rhythms of league) provides by contrast a stirring contest requiring not just the skilled feet or head of the individual footballer, but the collective skills, speed, strength and courage of the whole athlete, and the whole team. A rugby try almost invariably comes as the culmination of a passage of play that raises excitement and heightens expectation. There is little in sport to compare with the speeding winger heading for the corner, or the interplay and sleight of hand of a smoothly functioning back line, or the expenditure of every last ounce of effort and resolve as a forward pack masses to drive across the line.

    And we in New Zealand have an added bonus when we watch a top rugby match. No other team in world rugby can match the pace, power, precision and sheer elan shown by the All Blacks as they once again emerged victorious from renewed clashes with their greatest rivals. Surely we should savour and celebrate as we watch the world’s best in the knowledge that it is our team – our All Blacks – that have again maintained their century-old pre-eminence?

    Bryan Gould

    19 July 2010

  • 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.