What makes the All Blacks such a powerful brand in rugby?
According to Peter Bills in his illuminating new book, The Jersey: The Secrets Behind the World’s Most Successful Team, much of what makes New Zealand synonymous with rugby lies in the fact that practically every important aspect of the country’s history and development, as well as its highs and its lows, are intertwined with the sport.
Perfect sport for a pioneering people
Rugby was invented in 1823 in Rugby, England, and was brought over to the Land of the Long White Cloud in the late 19th century by Charles Monro, the son of a Scotsman. The first match was played in Nelson in 1870. And from the start, it seems to fit hand-in-glove with the kind of people that were there.
It thus raises the question: did the sport fit the people or did the people fit the sport?
(You could ask it another way: Would it be fair to say that certain temperaments are possibly not suited to playing rugby? If so, that could explain why it has never taken off in certain countries. But that’s for another book.)
Among the obvious things such as skill, strength and fitness, rugby is said to require a high level of doughtiness and stoicism to play. It needs resourcefulness from its players, great teamwork and a quick wit. But also an undeniable hardness and tenacity; of never giving up.
And if all that is true, if those are the best attributes to have to play the game well, then maybe New Zealand, through its history, does seem blessed right from the start.
Dour is often used to describe people willing or forced to make the trek to the other side of the world to start a new life. And if that means stern or relentlessly severe, then maybe those qualities, found in the people who came largely from England, Ireland and Scotland, have stood New Zealand in good stead to play the robust game of rugby.
Couple that with the inherent physicality and athleticism of the native Maori, a people with which the migrants fought several wars, then you have a combination made in heaven.
Honour and duty
And what made the combination even stronger was that rugby was the sport played by most of the sportsmen. It wasn’t diluted by other football codes, as is the case in other countries like Australia with its Australian Rules, Rugby League etc.
Then there are the events that shape a people’s lives.
Besides migration and conquering a new land and shaping it into their own image, soon after came the Great War. Far-flung colonies such as NZ and Australia played huge, even oversized, roles.
Dave Gallagher’s 1905 team were the first touring All Blacks. And tragically, many of them perished in the battlefields of the First World War. Forever more, in the New Zealand public’s mind, the association was made. The same kind of bravery. The same guys who played rugby for them, died for them in places such as Gallipolli and Passchendaele. Many an All Blacks tour to Europe would include a visit to the graveyards of the fallen comrades.
‘Cradle’ of the game in NZ
Peter Bills also makes the point rugby in New Zealand takes root very early.
2011 World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry and double World Cup-winning player Jerome Kaino are two who have no doubt that the schools in New Zealand are THE key to the success of Kiwi rugby.
Said Sir Graham, a former headmaster: “To me, the reason New Zealand is producing top rugby players is because of the key competitions throughout country and the coaching. Both are so good.”
The American Samoa-born Kaino, who won a rugby scholarship to Saint Kentigern College in Auckland, said the success of the All Blacks sides starts even earlier than the 1st XV: “I think even earlier than Under 12s,” he said.
“At a young age, the basics of the game are pushed a lot harder than how to score a try or anything like that. The big focus on the basics when young is so that it becomes second nature when you grow older.”
“You just keep doing it. It’s like speaking a language — use it or lose it. Even at our level [All Blacks and professional], we are drilled in the basics at every session. Just to make sure that when the pressure comes on, the basics are still there, they are ingrained. For us, the basics are the reason why we perform well under pressure.”
Watch Peter Bills talk about his book, The Jersey:
What it’s all about
But all these are not really secrets.
The strength of The Jersey by Peter Bills is that he boils down to the essence just what it means to wear the jersey. And Peter Bills does so through a wide array of extensive interviews with all the major personalities.
From Colin Meads, Brian Lochore and Wilson Whineray through to Graham Mourie and Wayne Shelford, and to Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, Peter Bills boasts an impressive roll-call in The Jersey.
(But the absence of any conversation or even mention of a few other high profile names, such as 1987 World Cup-winning captain David Kirk and 1991 skipper Gary Whetton, as well as 1980s stalwarts such as Murray Mexted and Dave Loveridge, does seem a little odd to me.)
He also speaks to rivals and opponents, such as Nick Farr-Jones, Pierre Berbizier, Brendan Venter and Tony Ward.
He covers issues such as the haka, the winning and winning-at-all-costs mentality, the Polynesian influence, as well as the business and sociological aspects of the game in New Zealand.
The jersey boys
The black jersey itself is an almost mythical artefact, a much sought-after prize by anyone playing the game in New Zealand. The real jerseys – not the replica found in stores – are hard to get. And the rarity is such that each All Black has a number and, over more than 100 years, there have been only 1,181 (as of the end of 2018).
Peter Bills reckons the only other piece of clothing in sport that can rank as highly, in terms of mythology and the awe with which it is regarded, is the US Masters’ green jacket in golf. South African legend Gary Player – who won the right to wear the jacket three times in his stellar career — agrees.
“I first dreamed of winning a Green Jacket the first time I picked up a golf club,” he said. “As I am sure the first time a New Zealand player picks up a rugby ball, he dreams of putting on his national jersey.”
One such All Black Peter Bills spoke to was Ian ‘Spooky’ Smith. A winger who played 24 times for New Zealand, including nine Tests, he but still hasn’t quite got over being dropped — even though it happened in 1966!
He was All Black number 644, “and one of my neighbours still call me that“.
This is the kind of history and spirit that teams that face the All Blacks are up against. And what makes them very hard to beat.
All in all, The Jersey is an enjoyable and highly readable look into what makes the New Zealand All Blacks arguably the most successful team in all international team sport.
And the ideal Christmas present for the All Blacks fan in your life!
Read up on our other Sports Books review snippets.