One of the greatest sports teams of all time?
The New Zealand Herald on Monday reported on a twitter spat between outspoken British talk show host Piers Morgan and a “doubter” over another journalist’s statement that the All Blacks were “the greatest team in sport”.
This ‘greatest sports teams all time‘ exchange, which took place just before the start of New Zealand’s 16-15 win over England at Twickenham on Saturday, was amusing for several reasons.
One was that I never took the highly opinionated and usually Arsenal-obsessed Morgan to be a rugby man, and so his defence of the All Blacks as the best team in international sport, while being a viewpoint you could make a good case for, felt like a bit of a laugh.
Another was the identity of the man the New Zealand Herald called the “doubter”. He was not, in fact, just some random guy but former England soccer captain Gary Lineker, who is now a very prominent sport broadcaster and who hosts the highly watched Match of the Day soccer program in Britain.
However, the debate itself was, for me, not amusing but ultimately highly tiresome, as it degenerated into the usual ignorant argument about rugby union being a minor, basically inconsequential, sport.
‘Greatest team in sport’
It began with BBC sports editor Dan Roan twitting that “Little in sport compares to watching the All Blacks” and that he was excited to watch a rare meeting between England and “the greatest team in sport”.
Lineker responded with: “Greatest team in sport. Now that’s a statement.”
And then, as many soccer people do, he brought up the old chestnut about rugby not being a major sport. “Realistically, you can only say in your opinion that they’re the best in their particular sport, especially as so few nations play rugby.”
Roan too said that it wasn’t just an opinion but a case that could be won by looking at the facts, and he put forward this article to back him up.
Morgan then likened the All Blacks to cricket legend, Don Bradman, in that their statistical superiority over rivals had made the case for their greatness — they were “so far out on their own in terms of dominance, it’s ridiculous”.
But Lineker responded by saying that “It’s not a fact, it’s your opinion. Massive respect for them and the sport, but it’s only played seriously in a few countries.”
He continued, when asked to name a better team than the All Blacks: “You could easily argue: Brazil, who have won 5 World Cups in a sport played the world over. USA basketball in a sport played almost everywhere. There’s a couple to be going on with.”
Another Twitter respondent then chimed in that none of the larger countries New Zealand regularly beats “have rugby as a main sport, either”, to which Lineker says: “Indeed. Number one sport in New Zealand, Wales and possibly South Africa. Anywhere else?”
No debate: Football is king
First of all, people like Gary Lineker should rest easy about his sport. It is obvious that, in terms of sport in general and among team sports, there is no rival to soccer, or football, as it is known in most countries. No one is challenging that.
But at the same time, there are huge swathes of people who do not like soccer, and don’t believe it to be the greatest sport of all.
It is just the MOST POPULAR sport; it is, with basketball, probably the easiest sports for anyone to pick up and play, and to be taught. There really isn’t that much to the two sports at a basic level, hence their unrivaled worldwide popularity, especially at grassroots level, and as a sport to watch.
Second, rugby is NOT played in just a handful of countries, as Lineker states. According to World Rugby, more than 100 countries play rugby union, with about 80 vying every four years to qualify for the Rugby World Cup.
While it may appear that any discussion of the strongest teams in rugby union always seems to bring up the same few usual suspects, the same can also be said about ANY team sport.
All sports have only a few winners
Basketball? While it is played in more countries than rugby, and has huge viewership and following worldwide, when you come down to it, it too is strong in only a handful of countries. There have been 19 Olympic Games and 17 basketball World Cups — the two pinnacles of the sport — but only SIX countries have ever been champions, with the United States (15 Olympic gold medals and five World Cups) the clearly dominant team. The next closest are the old Yugoslavia, with six titles overall, and the old Soviet Union, with five.
Cricket? It probably has the same profile as rugby union, in that it is a sport strongest in former British Empire countries, and is played well by a handful of countries while being nevertheless popular in many more. There have been 11 World Cups in cricket, and five champions: Australia (5 times), West Indies (2), India (2), Pakistan and Sri Lanka (1 each).
Field hockey? There have been 13 World Cups and 23 Olympic Games, for only eight winners.
Volleyball? Fourteen Olympics and 13 World Cups, or 27 world tournaments in all — 10 different winners.
Ice hockey? 24 Olympic Games, six different champion teams.
Competitiveness in individual sports
Even individual sports are “dominated by the same few countries”.
Michael Phelps is many people’s idea of the greatest ever Olympian because he has won the most gold medals, but the reality is that swimming as a competitive sport comprises relatively few fish in a relatively small pool. Many countries do not have Olympic-sized swimming pools, do not have the middle classes where the family has the means to employ a coach or be part of a solid swimming club system, and swimming as a sport cannot sustain careers outside of a few countries.
Tennis? Again, very widely played and popular as a spectator and recreational sport, but the same few countries produce most of the champions, especially in the “team” events, such as the Davis Cup.
Motor racing? Ditto. Millions of people love to drive fast, but only a tiny handful of countries have racing programs, and hence champions.
And what about soccer itself? It is definitely the most popular sport worldwide in terms of its following, viewership, people who play and so on. But again, the same few teams win. The football World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting event, has been played 21 times but only eight countries have ever won it. That’s right: more than 200 countries play the sport, and the World cup has been around over 88 years, but only Brazil, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, France, England and Spain have ever won.
In terms of competitiveness, that is proportionally better than basketball, the two hockeys and volleyball, but no better than cricket.
And what about little rugby union?
Lineker sneeringly suggested that rugby union is the Number One sport in very few countries, citing New Zealand and “maybe Wales and South Africa”.
But rugby is also fairly popular in several other countries, including, as he would know, the British nations and France.
It also has a healthy following and popularity in Argentina, Italy, Japan, the USA, Canada as well as Uruguay, Romania, Korea, Russia and Sri Lanka.
It is also Number One in countries such as Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and among the top in Madagascar, Georgia, Namibia and Kenya.
And in terms of the Rugby World Cup, there have been eight tournaments so far, and four different countries have won it — a proportion better than soccer, basketball or cricket; in fact, all the sports mentioned above.
At the moment, about 5-6 countries will be very competitive at the Rugby World Cup 2019, plus maybe 3-4 dark horses and spoilers. While New Zealand have won the past two tournaments, they were almost beaten by France in the 2011 final, and by South Africa in the 2015 semifinal. It hasn’t been a cakewalk by any means.
And what are the odds of Ireland, France, Argentina, Wales and even Scotland, Samoa and Fiji joining the winners’ circle? Pretty good, I would say. As good as, say, Holland, Belgium, Croatia or Nigeria winning the FIFA World Cup sooner rather than later, actually.
New Zealand’s greatest achievement
Yes, every sport is dominated by a few countries.
But New Zealand’s singular achievement in world rugby, and what makes them extraordinary is that, while all the dominant countries in the other sports are either very wealthy or have large populations, New Zealand does so while punching way above its weight for more than 100 years.
The West Indies’ dominance in cricket in the 1970s and 80s is often spoken of in similar terms but that superiority has long evaporated.
New Zealand, like the West Indies, has a population of less than 5 million, and yet the All Blacks have a fantastic playing record over a century against rivals who are also very good at the sport and who largely have far better resources.
This is what Piers Morgan and Dan Roan were trying to get at.
And this is what makes the All Blacks worthy of being called the greatest team in international sport.