18

Can the All Blacks be considered the ‘greatest team in sport’?

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 Greatest sports teams all time logo?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.

18 Comments

  1. Hi!
    I found this interesting, as an English woman in the UK I know these presenters well, and can’t help feeling that you have a dislike for Gary Lineker?! I think he was arguing for arguments sake perhaps, and of course what he really wanted to say was that the best team has to be a football team?
    I am not a huge fan of Piers Morgan, but annoyingly I do in this case agree with him! In my opinion, you can’t really argue that the All Blacks are anything but the best team in the world! And they play with pride and respect.. this is not the first thing I think off when someone mentions Brazil’s football team!!

    Enough said.. you certainly have roused up a debate!

    I am bound to have some bias as an English girl, but I love rugby and do enjoy my son getting into football too…just hate the foul play we see from professionals!

    • Hi Joanne, thanks for your comments.

      I actually admired Lineker as a player – a great goal scorer with great sportsmanship and underrated leadership qualities – but have never watched him as a broadcaster.

      I did feel I had to respond to his comments though, which is why I wrote the article. I think many soccer players do think that just because their sport is the most popular that it is also the most difficult or most competitive.

      As I said in the article, I agree it is the most popular and that is probably because it is a sport more people on earth can play because it is easier. I’m not saying it is easy to play well, but that it is one of the easiest to play, which is why it is popular.

      And yes, I think it riles him that someone dares to suggest that the best sports team of all is not a soccer team!

      I am not familiar with Piers Morgan’s work either aside from his occasional soccer arguments with various people but I do agree with him in this case.

      By the way, I am not an All Black fan or a Kiwi; but credit where credit is due, I believe.

  2. Interesting Post. I think that my favorite thing about the all blacks is the Haka. They are a great team, but to say they are the greatest team is debatable, because like you say there are many brilliant teams across a plethora of sports. The All blacks are truly a great team and I think it is because of the difficulties they face. They have to train harder and more efficiently than other teams as a result and this makes them even stronger.

    This post actually reminds me of a joke someone said to me. “Soccer players spend 90 minutes pretending to be hurt, Rugby players spend 80 minutes pretending not to be hurt!”.

     I think that these teams do put in a lot of work and that is evident from the brilliant games we have the pleasure of watching.

    • Yes, that’s a good joke. And it’s largely true! 

      It is hard to compare teams across sport so any conclusion would be debatable and would probably have no conclusion. But it is a lot of fun to have the debate.

  3. Hi Shy, South African gal here! 

    This is such a controversial question – no one likes hearing their team is not the best, even if it’s true lol. Rugby is huge here, and I’m not a big sports fan myself but I’m surrounded by family and friends that will not miss a rugby game – I always get nervous when I hear it’s us against the All Blacks – when we lose there are usually a lot of miserable ranting South Africans to deal with for the next couple days! 😀

    They are undeniably an legendary team – even I know that and I live under my geek-rock away from anything that involves a ball or physical activity.

    • Thanks for your comments, Nadia. 

      If it’s any consolation, South Africa is second on the list in rugby union. And on current form, the Springboks are not far behind. They beat the All Blacks once this year and really should have won two. Their match at RWC 2019 will be a highlight. 

      • Hehe thanks Shy – you know, I may just sit in on that match with my mom and sister to see what all the fuss is about! The excitement is contagious. 😀

  4. As far as I am concerned New Zealand being our “neighbours”, yes I am Aussie, only means that I know a bit about Rugby Union, or Union as it is often called here.

    I do not understand it at all, I have no intention of ever trying to understand it however as a Rugby Union playing country ourselves we often play them.

    We have a high level of competitiveness whenever we play any New Zealand team, in any sport, whether it be Netball, Cricket or Union. We absolutely love it when we beat them, as they do when they beat us.

    I can’t argue statistically and don’t intend to do so.

    What I can say is that there is only one other team in world sport that we play where we have such a level of intensity in the competition, and that is the English in cricket!

    With all of that in mind the All Blacks are without doubt the best ever team that we have ever played in any sport, period!

    There is certainly many teams which beat us hands down, like America in basketball, any top line soccer (football) teams and perhaps even in Tennis (team tennis, like Davis Cup which you mentioned) by the Americans.

    Our whole country has a collective swell in the chest when we beat the All Blacks, doesn’t happen very often at all.

    • Thanks, Steve. 

      Yes, the Bledisloe Cup has been a huge contest over the years, despite it being lopsided in recent years. 

      And yes, I agree it sits just behind the Ashes; as more Aussies follow cricket than rugby union.  

      But the All Blacks scalp is so rare, that the sports fans of any team will swell up with pride when their team beats the All Blacks.

  5. It’s true that rugby is not the greatest or most popular sport out there because a lot of countries don’t even participate in the competition and show little to no interest in airing them in their local channels. Like in my country they don’t even have a rugby team and the only way we we are able to watch rugby competitions is through cables.

    Everyone has their opinions. The All Blacks to me are a good team but I won’t say they are the best of teams. That argument is ridiculous. Sports in general do have several teams that just keeps on dominating. That’s just the way it is. It would be pretty difficult for a smaller country to come up and start dominating in any particular sport. That’s just the fact we all have to face.

    So in my opinion the All blacks are good but not that good to be the best sports team

    • Thanks for your feedback, Jay. Yes, comparing teams across sports is difficult and  some would say impossible. 

      But the article I cited did make reference to other studies that have tried to do it statistically and across all the major sports. And ranked the All Blacks very highly. The study even compared their record with those of club teams in other sports such as Real Madrid, Chicago Bulls, etc.

      Also, would you then say there is no such thing as “greatest sportsman of all time”? You couldn’t compare, say Muhammad Ali, with Don Bradman, or Michael Phelps, or Usain Bolt, or Pele etc, yes?

      In any case, this is the kind of discussion that sports fans love engaging in; pitting the supremacy of one sport’s achievements over the other.  It’s just competitive sports from the fringes.

  6. I have heard of rugby but not exactly sure how rhe sport is played or watched a game for that matter. However, I can understand the passion for a certain sport with a certain team. Those passions can leave us blinded by reality very easily. Even going so far as to say that one team is best ever.

    We would like to think that “our” team no matter the sport is the best ever. Human nature. Some however stand behind “their” team only if “their” team is winning. Die hard fans will murder if you do agree with thwir statement no matter the proof otherwise that somebody can show them. Is that what is going on here? Blindsided passion for The All Black Union?

    • Thanks for your comments. I have tried to make my point by resorting to facts and statistics as well as arguments. I am in no way an All Black fan, nor a Kiwi.

  7. Hi Shy. I would have to say first up that only a Kiwi could have written this. But it certainly makes for an interesting read. I’m not a rugby fan but I can’t say that I don’t like it. It must be breed into the New Zealanders and that’s why the All Blacks are so good. My granddaughters partner comes from Greymouth in New Zealand. Unfortunately for him he met an Aussie girl who doesn’t want to leave his country, She does however support him with his Rugby game. They lived in Biloela in this country for a number of years, it’s a large outback town in Queensland, he played rugby for their local team and soon won all the championship trophies and helped his team to a premiership. That’s why I think it’s born into a New Zealander to play union. I would debate that the All Blacks could be considered the greatest team in sport, I think we’d need a lot more statistics to prove that, but I do think they are an incredible team. Jim

    • Hah hah, I am not a Kiwi, nor an All Blacks fan.

      The All Blacks do have something like an 80% winning record in their sport, with the closest challenger, South Africa, at 65%.

      That is quite a record considering their population size and those of all their rivals.

  8. This is a great post, and I agree in some parts.

    Football is in my opinion the greatest sport, BUT basketball isn’t too far behind, as you see how popular it is becoming in China, and to say in the USA it is the number one, and they’re wordclass in it, it could become the nulber 1 soon.

    But that is my opinion.

    The All Blacks are famous, even in Belgium we know them.

    Are they they the greatest sports team? Maybe, in the branche they are yes.

    But in my.opinion, Real Madrid owns them.

    Thanks for sharing it anyway!

    • Thanks Emmanuel. My argument was about national sports teams and how well they do in their own sport and considering their opposition. Real Madrid is a club side. In any case, if Real and the All Blacks were to play each other at football and rugby, I know who my money would be on: Real might beat the All Blacks 10 goals to 2-3, but the All Blacks would probably score 30-40 tries to zero!

Leave a Reply to Steve Crozza Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *