Johnny Nic on rugby: What is behind New Zealand’s success?

Date published: June 27 2018

As New Zealand stand atop the world rankings – a position they’re more than accustomed to holding – let’s just appreciate for a moment how bloody good they are and indeed pretty much have always been.

I doubt there has been a more dominant country in any sport for so long. We kind of take it for granted now, so commonplace has their success become, but it’s worth reminding ourselves how awesome they are.

Here’s just a few outrageous Kiwi stats.

They have a 77 per cent winning record in Test match rugby!! 77 per cent!!

They are the only international side with a winning record against every single opponent. Every. Single. One.

Since their international debut in 1903, they have lost to only six of the 19 nations they have played in Test matches! That’s incredible in over 115 years!

Since the introduction of the World Rugby rankings in 2003, they have held the number one ranking longer than if you roll all the other teams together. That’s incredible.

New Zealand competes with Argentina, Australia and South Africa in the Rugby Championship. The All Blacks have won the trophy 15 times in the competition’s 22-year history.

The All Blacks have been named the World Rugby Team of the Year 10 times in 17 years.

They have won three World Cups and were runner-up in a fourth.

A whole book could be written on All Blacks’ records. They are so far ahead of every other nation that it is little short of extraordinary. It’s not as if there are just one or two successful generations, the way that sometimes happens in England. They’re almost always the best.

But why are they so good? New Zealand isn’t a big place. It only has a population of 4.6 million. How have they been so dominant for so long?

The answer seems to be actually rooted in the very fact that they are a small country. They have a long history of playing successful rugby stretching back to their triumphant 1905 tour of Britain where they put the motherland to the sword.

Whereas England has long traditions in many sports, New Zealand, though it also plays cricket and football (and have been to a World Cup), is still very much dominated by rugby. It is absolutely part of their self-identity in a way that not even soccer is in England. Plus, being a small nation, virtually everyone knows someone, who knows someone, who knows an All Black player. That establishes a strong bond and connection throughout the nation. It is an expression of what it means to be a Kiwi, again, in a way that playing any sport for England simply isn’t.

This means it’s taught from the earliest ages. Small kids are encouraged to play a non-tackling form of the game. Lots of different schemes are in place to inculcate the game into children’s lives at the earliest ages.

The pleasant climate has also been assigned an importance to development of the sport from an early age. Kids can play out most of the year and there are plenty of space for them to do so in parks and fields. It helps that New Zealand doesn’t seem to have thought it a good idea to sell off its playing fields the way successive idiotic governments in Britain did.

Because kids are constantly playing around with the ball in the streets, the way we might have done with a football, it means they are comfortable with it from an early age. Touch rugby is played recreationally on the beaches and in parks.

It’s also been said that New Zealand is blessed with an ideal genetic mix for rugby; adding the size and attitude of the Maori and the speed and power of the Polynesian islanders to its European ancestry. And being an island, somewhat isolated from pretty much everywhere else, it has bred a strong sense of identity.

When you add in the fact that rugby is taught at all schools and the coaching taken very seriously, with an emphasis on running with the ball from a young age onwards, then it’s not hard to see why this small nation keeps producing incredible players in such large numbers.

While it’s tempting to think other nations could follow their lead, no-one has been able to do so yet, despite having greater resources. But actually, maybe New Zealand isn’t a model that others can actually follow. Maybe it is just very specific to their islands and simply doesn’t transfer culturally, as much as anything, to anywhere else.

One thing is for sure, for as long as they pull on that black shirt, whoever they’re playing is in for one helluva game and that looks set to continue for years to come.

by John Nicholson