NEW ZEALAND — Tana Umaga is in the boardroom of the Blues’ HQ. On the walls behind him are pictures of greats past; there are reminders of the current team and he pauses before weighing up whether All Blacks are unique.
“I don’t think All Blacks are different in terms of culture and mind-set as every team wants the same thing,” Umaga tells ESPN. “But what you have is a group of players who are on top of their game.
“With the All Blacks it’s in terms of skill levels, fitness levels — they are at a high premium. When you’re there, Test match rugby is so easy. As a player you just have to worry about yourself as you don’t have to worry about whether that guy knows the calls or whatever. You have the best of the best in our country, who are usually up there with the rest of the world.
Rugby clubs the world over each have their own unique story to tell. But few come better than that of Ponsonby District Rugby Football Club, where the local community is just as important as a record 45 All Blacks.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
“You can enjoy it as you have collective buy in. You go out there and enjoy training as everyone has high standards and you don’t want to let anyone down.
“You are driven by the legacy of the All Blacks and there’s a reason for why you want to do your best. It was easy rugby, as I knew what I had to do. When you have those high levels of skill and players, and then the high levels of confidence in what you’re trying to do it flows through.”
That doesn’t all happen by accident. There is a system here in New Zealand, one geared towards realising an individual’s potential, a structure built around success and rugby being engrained in the soil.
Over the past six weeks we have travelled the length and breadth of this wonderful country, immersing ourselves in rugby and spending time with the most welcoming of locals. This is the story as I see it of why the All Blacks are the envy of the world.
The school system focused on individual and collective development
“There’s no doubt about it that some of these elite schools are creating good pathways,” Umaga says. “Rugby is seen as a career path, you can really grow up being a professional rugby player. Everything is geared towards that. I think that helps.”
During his time at Rongotoi College Ardie Savea encouraged his teammates to “be the man who just does it”. Hannah Peters/Getty Images
On the walls of Rongotoi College is a picture of their 2011 head prefect, Ardie Savea. The college, stationed in Kilbirnie on the outskirts of Wellington, has seen nine All Blacks pass through its doors, but it is the Savea brothers and Ma’a Nonu who are their most recent success stories. The school’s values are summed up by the acronym BEST — Being respectful, Encouraging brotherhood, Striving for excellence and Taking pride.
They don’t have rules; discipline and success revolve around those four cornerstones.
By Ardie Savea’s picture is the mantra he brought to the school: ‘Don’t be the boy who needs to be told what to do… be the man who just does it’ — words beyond his years, an understanding and acceptance of early maturity and expectation filtered down from the All Blacks’ culture.
The college has a strict policy: if a student has an attendance record below 90 percent, then they aren’t allowed to play sport. Given that between the ages of 13 and 18, there aren’t academies for players to turn to if they let standards slip, the only competitive rugby they play — and the only place they will get noticed by scouts — is at school. The emphasis is on learning, growing and playing.
There are currently nine players of Polynesian heritage in their first-choice 23-man squad. But rugby is a great leveller for society; those from well-to-do and less affluent backgrounds are all under one badge, wearing the same shirt when they take to the field. It is the band of brothers mentality that is built at the top of the game here, but is adopted, emphasised from All Blacks down to the rugby players throwing their first Sonny Bill Williams-esque offload in the playground.
Rongotoi College is a fascinating place; the school moulds the players of the future into adults, and under the coaching of Dave Meaclem, future All Blacks.
They aren’t perhaps seen as a traditional production line for the All Blacks, but in Hamilton, the Hamilton Boys’ High School has a rich history of producing top level sportsmen and women.
Their head of rugby, Nigel Hotham, holds 25-cap scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow as the shining light for everything he wants in a student, and role model. “The boys come back after playing for Waikato, the Chiefs or New Zealand and the message is always the same,” Hotham says. “It’s enjoy your time in school, and enjoy your time in the first XV, as it’s your most enjoyable time of your life.
“That story is so common that it has to be true. Tawera’s mother is Australian, and his dad’s a local Waikato guy. He came here as a Year 9 boy and I asked him what his goal was, and he said he wanted to play for the first XV. I said that’s a great goal, but then I realised he was being serious about it.
Kerr-Barlow, second right, celebrates winning the World Cup in 2015. Phil Walter/Getty Images
“In pouring rain he’d be outside my office throwing passes, just to prove to me that he was being serious. He ended up captaining the first XV and we won the Top Four [an inter-province schools tournament]. He’s had an extremely close relationship with us.
“The classic moment was after the 2015 World Cup final, he turned up to our Monday morning session which is quarter-past-six to half-past-seven which was a really hard, grinding session. And he turned up to that after winning the World Cup. That’s a sign of how much he gives back. I use him as an example all the time.”
And running alongside those who are rugby-focused, is a wider love for sport in general. For Piri Weepu, who was scrum-half when the All Blacks won the World Cup in 2011, this is why New Zealand rugby is so successful.
“Balance is the key,” Weepu says. “I put it down to kids being able to play whatever they wanted, and parents were free to let their children do whatever they wanted too. So if you wanted to play softball, you did. And then with rugby, all you needed was shorts and socks – it’s the same with league or basketball.
“It was being able to have a go at anything that you wanted to do and tried to be good at. It then became fun and you enjoyed it. If you are fortunate enough to get paid to do something you love, it’s the icing on the cake. You never think that at the time, you’re in it for the love of the game. Everyone’s playing for the love, when you’re young.”
Shared understanding and drive
“We share information, we share ideas,” Umaga says. “The All Blacks are at the top and they push information down, we don’t have to take it but we have the opportunity to learn from it and put it in our memory banks.”
Sir Graham Henry shows off the Webb Ellis Cup with Richie McCaw in 2011. David Rogers/Getty Images
The pyramid system of collective understanding puts the All Blacks at the top, then the five Super Rugby franchises, the Mitre 10 Cup teams and so on. Coaching ideas are shared; tactical nuances developed, and players from under-6 level have, whether they know it or not, a semblance of All Blacks DNA in their training sessions.
Sir Graham Henry sees New Zealand’s success in rugby as being down to “good competitions” and the players being “well coached”. There is an emphasis on catch-pass, and playing at high speeds with pace. It’s expected, taken in strides, rather than forced.
New Zealand coaches are in high-demand with three of the four home nations coached by Kiwis last season. Warren Gatland is here in charge of the British & Irish Lions, Dave Rennie will be at Glasgow Warriors next season, Wayne Pivac has just won the PRO12 with the Scarlets — New Zealanders are sought after.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is obviously keen to retain its best coaches, but overseas experience does enhance understanding, with both Henry and Steve Hansen former Wales coaches. They then return to their homeland having had a taste of rugby away from here, and put what they’ve learned into a system built around sustainability and success.
“What New Zealand rugby is prepared to do is share,” Henry says. “There are few secrets. So the All Blacks coaches, Super coaches and provincial coaches help school coaches. There’s a lot of sharing of information and how to develop a team and players.
“Everybody who plays for the All Blacks plays here, so they play in the Super competition. They have to play here. They’re on the same strength and conditioning programme, people are working together to develop players. There’s a sharing of ideas from the All Blacks to the five franchises.
“So if we’re talking Crusaders, there’s [Mitre 10 Cup sides] Tasman and Canterbury and then there’s West Coast and Mid Canterbury and South Canterbury who play in the competition below. And then there are the schools like Canterbury Boys’, Christchurch Boys’, Ashburton College, St Bede’s, Canterbury College and so on. So, they are getting information from the provinces. So there’s plenty of information being shared to develop teams and players.”
Then there are the central contracts and the cultural melting pot. The current All Blacks squad mixes together Maoris, Polynesians and Pākehās, but all are brought together under one fern, and centrally contracted by NZR. Players are brought up in the same system, playing the same brand of rugby, with the same coaching messages.
And then there is the understanding that you have to play in New Zealand to represent the All Blacks. It is sacred and offers more than monetary reward, the weight of legacy is something that inspires.
The weight of the legacy and continuity
“The Kapa O Pango was something brand new to this All Black legacy that has been successful,” Umaga says. “We had to convince younger players to get on the same waka as us, and they took convincing, and didn’t want to jinx anything. We were forging ahead as we wanted to add to it.”
Tana Umaga led the new All Blacks haka, Kapo o Pango, for the first time against South Africa in August 2005. Ross Land/Getty Images
The post-professionalism watershed moment for the All Blacks came in 2004, when the players and coaches enforced a change in culture. They felt they were in danger of forgetting their roots, and history lessons were given on the 1905 ‘Originals’.
The phrase ‘better people make better All Blacks’ was coined by Sir Brian Lochore, and other themes were brought in like only being temporary custodians of the black jersey, and living by All Blacks values throughout daily life.
Liam Messam, the 43-cap flanker, made his debut in 2008, and was in awe of his teammates. But under Richie McCaw, he felt accepted and understood what it meant to be an All Black.
“I’m not sure what the jersey does to you, but you have a responsibility of keeping the legacy of the All Blacks, which is bloody strong,” Messam says. “And you have the responsibility of leaving your mark on the jersey. You have a legacy to uphold, but also your mark. It’s not your jersey though, we’re just guardians and we are there to set it up for the next boys who are coming through.
“When you’re an All Black you are an All Black 24/7 — whether you’re a past or present All Black, you have to live up to those values. We do make mistakes but we understand our responsibilities.”
Umaga and Henry oversaw that change in culture in 2004, they were the foundation stones for today’s success. Along with a shift in focus, they instigated two more key changes. Firstly, they brought in a new haka — the Kapa O Pango — to sit alongside the traditional Ka Mate.
It was originally ready for the Lions tour in 2005, but Umaga, then captain, felt that not all players were on board, and there was a concern they would jinx the badge. The leaders in the group embraced it, but only when everyone was behind it. When that was agreed, they had built a collective understanding and trust, channelled through the Kapa O Pango.
The translation of the Maori in the fourth stanza, highlights the strength of the collective message: “This defines us as the All Blacks. And it is my time! It is my moment! The anticipation explodes! Feel the power, our dominance rises, our supremacy emerges, to be placed on high.”
That it was player-led was the second key change. “It was important,” Umaga says. “You have to give credit to the coaches for allowing it. We had those discussions with the coaches.
“Why is All Blacks rugby great? It has a legacy. There’s pride in the history”
Sir Graham Henry
“I was an older man and I’d seen what had gone before and Ted [Henry], Wayne [Smith], Steve [Hansen] had come back from Europe and they were waiting for us to get together but we’d just finished Super Rugby. So they’d seen how we’d trained over there and when we all got together it was like we were playing Test matches, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.”
The players spoke with the coaches after the 2004 Tri-Nations and asked for the programme to be tweaked. “I always take my hat off to the coaches as they listened,” Umaga says. “We saw some big shifts — there was more support for the captain as we were growing leaders in other areas, he had lieutenants on his wavelength.”
“Why is All Blacks rugby great? It has a legacy,” Henry says. “It’s been going on 120 years and there’s pride in the history of All Black rugby and pride in the current team who were named world sporting team of the year so there’s a lot of pride. And young teams want to get into that team.
“What impresses me is the passion in the younger players. They love playing the game and expressing themselves and you can see it. The young guys love expressing their skills and pride in the game. All of those things.”
It’s not always plain sailing being an All Black. The defeat in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarterfinal led to widespread criticism of the coaching group and players. But NZR stuck by them. Henry would lead them to the 2011 World Cup title and Hansen would continue the momentum with the 2015 triumph.
“If we hadn’t lost in 2007, I don’t reckon we would have won in 2011 or 2015,” Hansen says. “Whilst it hurts if you do lose, you learn as you go.”
Lessons were learned. Gilbert Enoka, the All Blacks’ mental skills coach is credited with keeping the team mentally strong – “he is the mastermind” is Messam’s take – while the continuity in coaching means it is a wheel that just keeps on turning.
“My job in this team is to make sure we win Test matches today but also that we enhance who we are and what we are and where we go tomorrow,” Hansen says. “If I get run over by a bus, I know the team’s in good hands and is going to keep going. You’ve got keep feeding in – if you take off the top, you’ve got to put in at the bottom.”
Liam Messam believes rugby is in the “heads” of youngsters in New Zealand. Phil Walter/Getty Images
The pyramid of success has put the All Blacks at the top – the coaches, the school system, the organisation of competitions, the legacy of legends past, the empowering of players and central contracts all point towards its sustainability. And then you have the deep-rooted love for the sport in this country.
“It’s in our heads, bro, it’s in our heads,” Messam says. “When you are an All Black you have a responsibility to your community, but you have a responsibility to inspire the next group of kids who want to be All Blacks.
“You grow up with it. All my seven-year-old son wants to be is an All Black. He is running around pretending he’s Sonny Bill Williams, he runs down the street, practising his kicks, thinking he’s Damian McKenzie. He wears a Chiefs or All Blacks jersey almost every day to school, and when you pick him up he’s throwing a ball around.
“It’s little things like that; you just grow up wanting to be an All Black. If you head anywhere in New Zealand, you will find boys and girls who are exactly the same. It’s in our blood, it’s in our DNA, it’s like we have rugby balls flowing through our veins.”
When Messam retires he will pass on his knowledge to the next generation. It is what Umaga’s doing now: looking for future All Blacks, ensuring they learn life lessons, and above all, put an emphasis on having fun.
“Children at a young age are being exposed to the love of the game by their parents who want their children to understand the All Blacks and their legacy,” Umaga says. “That legacy of success grows into something people want to be a part of, especially in a small country like ours, but we can compete on a world stage in certain areas and we celebrate that to the hilt.
“Young players get involved in rugby and how it becomes sustainable is the drive to wear the black jersey and how we keep that precious. The people realise their roles within that legacy and how they can keep it going and all those things come with it.
“We don’t pick players from overseas and that’s a crucial part of our success. Other countries allow it, but we don’t have that investment, but they do get investment from the coaches to spread the word around rugby and keep building that knowledge and passing it on as it filters down.
“I believe that if we allow our players to go, then it will dilute what we’ve got. It keeps guys here driven for something other than money. I see it as a positive thing. Hopefully it continues as it helps us do well.
“Those that have been before, I want us to stay there at the top so I want to pass on what I’ve learned in this capacity as a coach so we can continue to do that. There are a lot of ex-players doing the same thing and are focused on making New Zealand rugby strong and long may it continue.”
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