All Blacks have dominated rugby for best part of a decade
Players and coaches reflect on the reasons for NZ success
Since the 2011 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand has boasted an 89% win record. It’s an intimidating haul of results since it won that event on home soil, including a second consecutive World Cup title in 2015, the nation’s third overall.
No wonder the All Blacks are considered one of the most dominant teams in all of sport.
Throughout their history the All Blacks have been serial winners. But if you add in results since 2004, despite maintaining a similarly high win percentage (87.2%), hidden amongst the numbers are painful results.
Chiefly among them, a 2007 World Cup quarterfinal loss to France which rocked the nation. The Kiwis went into that tournament as red hot favorites having obliterated the British & Irish Lions two years before and dominated their southern hemisphere rivals in the build-up. Yet they came inexplicably unstuck.
Go just a little further back and it’s no more comfortable. In 2003, Australia defeated New Zealand in the World Cup semis. Then there was another semifinal loss in 1999, with the French villains again.
What about those emotional scenes in 1995 as an inspired South Africa overcame the illness-riddled, Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks to lift the Webb Ellis trophy alongside Nelson Mandela?
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Once you get past New Zealand’s inaugural World Cup triumph in 1987 and add all of this up, you can understand why, in the mid 2000s, the All Blacks were considered serial chokers by many.
Yes – winning two World Cups on the bounce, in 2011 and in England in 2015, will eradicate any negative label. But how did the nation right itself, not just holding onto the high win ratio but adding in trophies when it mattered most?
Evolving out of disappointment
Talking to CNN on the eve of his very last Super Rugby outing for the Auckland Blues, two-time World Cup winning, 81-capper Jerome Kaino considers why things flipped.
“I think a huge motivating factor in 2011 was being at home,” he says, hesitantly at first. “And as hard as it was, I think having the guys around from 2007, taking the learning from that tournament and applying it to our campaign in 2011 was a huge help.”
All Blacks at the World Cup
Back-row forward Kaino added no-nonsense edge to a team of stars in both 2011 and 2015. In the black jersey he was a broadsword amongst rapiers. Not that his game was one-dimensional – he has an impressive array of skills. Which is perhaps which leads him into his next point about the nation’s top rugby talents.
He says: “I think the styles of the game – the brand the All Blacks play – definitely changes from year to year. That’s one thing I’ve noticed in what’s expected of other players. That’s down to the coaches lifting standards in what they’re expecting every year.
“I think it’s the evolution of how you play as a team and what’s expected from forwards these days. That’s developed through the years. A lock forward no longer just carries the ball and cleans rucks – there are other things, like the expectation to catch-pass. Expectations keep lifting from year to year.
“I remember a time when locks didn’t have to work on their acceleration, their footwork, their evasion skills or their catch-pass. Front-rowers just did their jobs, locks did their job, the forwards tackled all day and tried to steal ball.
“But now you’ve got periods in the game where tight forwards are expected to do things like midfielders. The skill-set within players these days has definitely grown.
“I don’t think you can put it down to changing one year, but you see the players coming through and they’re faster, stronger, and in time you realize, ‘Hey, I’ve got to start adding to my arsenal or I’ll get left behind.’”
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Talk to many All Blacks about their “aura” that may intimidate other nations and they can come across bored. But Kaino gets a little more excited when he begins talking about “rugby intelligence.”
For him, it is a huge part of what makes New Zealand rugby tick. As he explains: “It’s also engrained in how our coaches coach the game. There’s always an element of thinking outside the box, having that point of difference with how players think and react and execute under pressure.
“From a school to semi-professional, and definitely in Super Rugby up to the All Blacks, there’s a huge emphasis on how players react and how they execute their skills under pressure. There’s a lot of time and effort going into that, just as much as the physical training.”
Kaino explains that even at school level, there will be visualization sessions mixed in with skills work.
His views on coaching are picked up by Chris Boyd. Currently with the Wellington Hurricanes, but soon to take the reigns at Northampton Saints in England’s Gallagher Premiership, the Super Rugby-winning coach agrees that there must be something going very well with Kiwi coaches – it’s why Ireland, Wales, Georgia and others hire bosses from down under.
Boyd also explains that one of the keys is that the athletes are treated like prime commodities in New Zealand.
“In Europe, there can be these little tête-à-têtes between clubs and country,” he says. “And while we grumble and grizzle, by and large we get it right and have the players [at the forefront].
“Basically all the best athletes are there to choose from. Ideologically, we’ve made things very player-centric with our processes, which is at times holistic and long-term.”
There is more. Enemies during the season can unite for a greater cause in New Zealand.
Boyd says: “We have a sharing of knowledge. We Super Rugby coaches compete like hell throughout the season but then we will have a conference together. You’re not giving away juicy on-field stuff, but over four or five days we’ll be discussing leadership or training techniques and systems etc.”
The franchises also have a very good relationship with the management of the national set-up.
Earlier this year, Glasgow Warriors assistant Jason O’Halloran caught many unawares when he said: “That’s the biggest area for growth in Scottish rugby, the whole sports psych thing.
“I don’t think it’s done particularly well at all. It’s often just seen as a bit of voodoo and witch-doctor stuff, which is where we were at in New Zealand probably 20 years ago.”
What O’Halloran is talking about is the ability to take constructive criticism and use it to shape your next moves. Another desirable trait is being able to move past errors, obstacles or ill-fortune and attack your next task.
The stats show that the All Blacks, as a collective, have this down to an art.
Since 2004, the All Blacks have been losing at half-time in 42 out of the 188 games they’ve played (22.3%). Of the 42 games, they won 28, drew one and only lost 13.
Although many of their biggest from-behind wins came pre-2007, one astounding result was when New Zealand came back from a whopping 15 points against Ireland in 2013 – a heartbreaking moment for the Irish.
Since 2012 there has also been strong evidence of ruthlessness at home.
On 10 occasions, the All Blacks have not conceded a single second-half point. Only 18 times since 2012 have the All Blacks conceded points in the third quarter of a Test; in fact they’ve only let in 81 points in the third quarter during these years, while scoring 352 points in the third quarter themselves.
On average, the All Blacks have only spent 12 minutes trailing their opposition since 2012.
In 2015, the man who led New Zealand to the title in 2011, Sir Graham Henry, told The Telegraph about the use of psychology after 2007, saying: “When you are under pressure your brain goes a different state and you end up running around like a headless chicken.
“All the players have individual cues to stay in the now on the field. If they feel themselves slipping they click on with that individual mental trigger to make them stay in the now. They practice that all the time.”
This returns to what Kaino was explaining with visualization. He explains that the man who has masterminded the approach, Gilbert Enoka, is a key part of the team.
“Enoka was part of my journey from day one there, and he’s put in some great systems with the team and also a lot of individuals,” says Kaino.
“He tries to get to know everyone and how people operate. You can’t sit there and make one blanket framework work for everyone.
“He likes to see how people think, what works for individuals and you discuss with them a certain process so that if you do find yourself caving under pressure, how do you bounce back into the positive state of mind quicker?”
Evolution; great mental preparation; legacy. These are all fine things, but there is another piece of the puzzle: raw talent.
“We get the best athletes in the country,” Boyd says of the monopoly rugby has over every other sport in New Zealand.
However, Boyd explains that the game has moved on from the 1960s and 70s, when you could throw a ball and it would hit a farmer. The dawn of strength and conditioning means that the “city slickers” can match-up physically. And all of them need the skills.
Ahead of his move to Northampton, Boyd is keen to see if England has an outdoor culture for its youth like New Zealand has. He sees one of his country’s greatest assets being the cross-pollination of sports.
He gives the example of a teenager the Hurricanes have just signed who is a great at water polo, running hurdles and rugby. No one was shocked when, lo and behold, he turned out to be a good golfer too.
Is there an inherent skills gap between rival nations? Perhaps, but as Kaino explains, athletes must constantly evolve anyway. Setting win percentages and skills aside, though, there is one last element that Kiwis are particularly proud of.
Boyd leaves us with an anecdote.
The coach heard former England football boss Roy Hodgson speak at a leadership conference about managing a team. After putting his hand up to intercede, Boyd remembers seeing genuine shock from Hodgson when he was informed that truly every Kiwi at the elite level had the team’s best interests at heart, over any individual goals.
“Team first” is part of the national psyche, Boyd insists.