What are the greatest teams in sporting history? It’s a question that Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal set out to answer when researching his new book, The Captain Class. Walker settled on 16 club and national teams, from baseball’s New York Yankees of the mid-20th century and basketball’s Boston Celtics a decade later, to the Australian women’s hockey team in the 1990s and the all-conquering Barcelona footballers who played from 2008 to 2013.
Only one team features twice on the list – the All Blacks. Walker chose the New Zealand rugby teams of 1986 to 1990 and of 2011 to 2015, and also had the 1960s team on his shortlist. That should not have been a big surprise. For the All Blacks, who play against the British and Irish Lions in the deciding Test of the three-match series in Auckland on 8 July, are the most dominant team in the history of sport.
Most great teams are dynasties that are built around an inspirational coach or several players, and which lose their edge when those key personnel change. What sets the All Blacks apart is that while they have had periods of extraordinary success, as exemplified by the teams captained by Wayne Shelford and Richie McCaw, their record of sustained excellence transcends eras.
Since their first Test match in 1903, the All Blacks have won 79 per cent of their matches. Far behind, in second place, are South Africa, with a 65 per cent win rate, and then England with 58 per cent. And the supremacy is growing. Of the 97 matches New Zealand have played since the start of 2010, they have won 87, drawn two and lost only eight, for a win rate of 90 per cent. If the Lions emerge victorious this weekend it will be the first time the All Blacks have lost consecutive matches in six years.
The win ratio is all the more impressive when you look at the international rugby calendar. Unlike other sports such as football and cricket, the elite rugby nations have few easy games, and play the top countries home and away year after year.
How has a country of just four million people managed to achieve such dominance for so long? Rugby is not the only mass participation sport in New Zealand or the only one in which it has success. In June the country won the prestigious America’s Cup yachting trophy, and it is competitive in hockey, cricket and individual sports such as triathlon. But in terms of its place in national culture, and hero worship and earning potential, no sport comes close to rugby.
Anton Oliver, a former All Black hooker who won 59 caps between 1996 and 2007, explains that it all goes back to the 1905 tour of Europe and North America. “The Originals”, as the team came to be known, won 34 out of 35 matches, scoring 976 points and conceding only 59, while playing the sort of attacking rugby for which the country would become renowned. For a tiny, distant nation it was a remarkable achievement, especially the victories in Britain.
Back home, politicians used rugby to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and continued success helped ensure that the game became central to New Zealand’s culture and identity.
A favourable climate and abundant space helped. Even today, every primary school in the country has a grass field. “You grow up with a ball in your hand,” Oliver told me when we met one recent day at M&G Investments in London, where he works.
In a recent Times column, the former All Black Andrew Mehrtens recalled being surprised by the football skills of his English teammates at Harlequins, who as kids spent more time with a round ball than an oval one. For New Zealanders, the magic is more in the hands than the feet, as demonstrated by flyhalf Beauden Barrett in the first Test against the Lions, when he scooped the ball up off the ground one-handed while being chased towards his own tryline.
And it is not only All Black backline players who are expected to have those skills. “When it comes to handling, backs everywhere [in all Test-playing nations] can do it well,” Oliver said. “But with our forwards – that’s where you see the big difference. You can never play with width unless all your players can catch and look up and pass.”
They also need to be able to deal with pressure. The New Zealand public believes the All Blacks should win every game, which is why they seldom field a second-string team, even at the season’s end in the autumn internationals in Europe. But at times, especially in World Cups, the weight of expectation has become too much.
“You either walk towards the pressure or fight it and play the victim, saying it’s an impossible task to win all the time. Since 2004, we have walked towards that pressure, and used it as a positive thing,” Oliver said.
That was the year Graham Henry took over as coach, and the start of a new era of dominance. Henry understood that he needed to step back and empower the players – an approach that his assistant Steve Hansen stuck with after taking over at the end of 2011. “It was all about removing the fear of a mistake: express yourself, trust your instincts and make a decision,” Oliver said. “If you think it’s on – go!” It’s why Barrett attempted his audacious pick-up instead of diving on the ball, a safer option. He knew that if he messed up there would be no recrimination.
There was also a subtle change in the culture of the team. “What the All Blacks managed to do, especially since 2004, was to create a legacy, passing on the intergenerational lore. We talk about being ‘custodians of the jersey’. You want to leave the jersey in a better place than where you found it,” Oliver said.
Character matters. “There are two questions we ask when someone comes into the All Blacks squad. What are you prepared to sacrifice? And what are you going to give to the team? You have to accept brilliant people, of course, but they also have to contribute. There’s no room for dickheads.”
Win or lose on Saturday, the good news for New Zealand’s rivals is that Oliver sees the last 13 years, during which time the All Blacks won two World Cups, as a “golden patch that is unlikely to be replicated”. The bad news is that history suggests otherwise.
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania