The All Blacks have just recorded a record 18th consecutive win (against top tier nations) to add to the successful Rugby World Cup defence a year ago. Not bad for life after Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, two legends of the game.
But they didn’t just win. There’s more to it.
Let’s have a look at some numbers, then discuss how they do it.
First, some context and the challenge: Even though New Zealand’s national sport is rugby, there are now more football players under the age of 18. In the context of the other big rugby playing nations, New Zealand has just the eighth biggest pool of players to choose from. For every one player playing rugby in New Zealand, England have almost a whole team’s worth.
- England: 2, 058, 000
- Australia: 616, 000
- South Africa: 419, 000
- France: 384, 000
- Ireland: 172, 000
- Scotland: 164, 000
- Fiji: 156, 000
- New Zealand: 148, 000
Secondly, the achievements in recent years. In the four calendar years under coach Steve Hansen since the last World Cup: Played 54. Won 49, Drew 2, Lost 3. Such a win ratio, in excess of 90%, is unheard of in modern professional sport. For the 2016 calendar year, the All Blacks have won a perfect 10 out of 10 amassing 420 points in the process while conceding just 143. That’s an average score of 42-14 per game.
Some comparisons: Manchester United had a 65% win percentage under Sir Alex Ferguson in the Premier League. Jose Mourinho had 70% in the Premier League before the start of the 2015/16 season and the Chelsea Implosion, (with more losses in those last few months than in Steve Hansen’s four years in charge of the All Blacks). The highest win percentage all-time in American Sports is 61%.
And in the professional era, sport is all about winning. Right? With a win percentage over 90% you would think that 9 time out of 10, New Zealanders are happy with their performance, right?
Not for the All Blacks.
I went to the All Blacks vs Georgia in Cardiff at the World Cup (10 hours of driving in one day to watch a nation’s heroes!). It was a big win, but a poor performance. Although the score board read 50 odd points, the performance was poor and the headlines in New Zealand weren’t positive. Because results aren’t enough and the demand for playing the right way is so high.
The public, the team, and the world, expects the All Blacks to play All Blacks rugby. To play with style and flair, the ‘right’ way. It was the same for some rare times in professional sport who have that aura about them. Think Manchester United in the late 90s and 00s. Brazil with Joga Bonito (‘play beautiful’) in the past. And Barcelona recently.
Two weeks later against France in the quarter final, the All Blacks won. And the wider public was happy with the performance. The flair, the risks, the offloads. And not just from the backs, but from every player, the forwards were having fun and showing their skill set too.
The hooter had gone on Saturday in the final, New Zealand had an unassailable lead in the Rugby World Cup Final, where results are everything. Sonny Bill Williams just had to kick the ball out to claim world cup glory. Did he? No. He ran at his man and popped out a trademark offload, trying to attack one more time and have some more fun with the ball.
Although I have played football all my life, I love rugby too. I went to a few trainings at my local club here in Manchester a few months ago when I first moved in. We practiced scrums just inside our half, the 40m line. The ‘move’ was to pass it back for the kicker to get rid of the ball. Not to recover possession or to attack, but to kick it deep and out. I couldn’t believe it! In New Zealand, the first question, the first instinct, is ‘can we run it’, ‘can we have a go’?
It summarised for me the difference with how we play in New Zealand. And I think the key word here is play. Its enjoyment, expression and match intelligence.
While other nations focus on the physicality of building big, strong, fast players, New Zealand produces creative ball players first, and makes athletes of them second.
If a team doesn’t try running our from their own half in training, and solving problems with creative rugby, how can they possibly keep their heads and do it in a high pressure environment of an international test match? When England are losing by more than a kick or two with time running out, how can they be comfortable chasing a try to win it?
Let’s have a look at the situation that lead to the late try that would seal the victory in the World Cup Final. Ben Smith picked the ball up in open play, under pressure, inside his own 22. Note: this situation is far less comfortable and with far less pressure than a scrum in our 40m line. The frames below show what unfolded as he stepped two players, then kicked with the objective of recovering to score. He risked everything, and it came it off.
There are parallels with futsal. The high pressure in small spaces promotes creative problem solving, as well as being comfortable in tight one on one situations. Over and over, not just technically, but tactically players are presented with intensely pressurised situations and problems to solve. Futsal is a hyper training tool for football because of these intensified problems, more often.
But does it mean that you run it every time in rugby, or be tricky and dribble every time you get in in football/futsal? No. Later in development, children can learn when to use them, but first we must give them the tools to learn how, and let them sharpen it. We are doing out players an injustice to not equip them with all the tools of the game. Even if that means being ‘tricky’ or ‘flashy’.
We owe it to our players to put them in difficult situations, to solve problems, and to learn the ‘tricky’ stuff in training. We must build their tool kit of technical ability and tactical problem solving early. They can then learn when and how to use their tools later in their development.
The All Blacks play for fun, expression, to entertain. Just like Brazil. Like Manchester United. And like Barcelona.
Because for the All Blacks, it’s not enough to just win.
Sometimes we need to think more about playing the game, rather than playing the numbers and reducing risk.
Funnily enough, with an emphasis on just playing the game, the All Blacks have the best winning percentage in professional sport.