Friday, November 06, 2015

The Dominance of a Small Obscure Island Nation.

Last Saturday, New Zealand’s legendary All Black team created history by defending their rugby world cup title. The historic win has put the island nation into a “party mode” and there is a sense of vindication for the nation that regarded its national team as the world’s best but had to wait 24-years between their first and second world cup wins.

What makes the All Black win more interesting is the fact that this is a national team from a small country of around 4.71 million people tucked away at the furthest end of the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand does not rank as an emerging superpower let alone a superpower. While prosperous, New Zealand rarely ranks on a top ten of any global listing. By way of a comparison, New Zealand with a population of 4.71 million has as estimated GDP of $170 billion plus whereas Singapore, a nation that developed later than New Zealand, with a comparable population has a estimated GDP of $308 billion (source – Wikipedia).

So, how did New Zealand become so dominant in rugby when it lacks the key attributes (a large population and money) of other sporting powerhouses?  An examination of what makes the New Zealand All Blacks so successful is a worthy study for small organizations hopping to succeed.

The best place to start is probably the obvious – rugby union in New Zealand is a national religion and the country’s entire national pride is invested in the national rugby team. As such, the nation’s economic and emotional resources are thrown into the game. By comparison, if you look at New Zealand’s closest rivals; rugby union is only the third most popular game in Australia (after Australian Rules and Rugby League) and in South Africa rugby union is only the game of the white minority.

This means that every All Black player who steps onto the pitch does so with the understanding that he’s not playing for himself but for the entire nation. A loss, no matter how narrow is regarded as a national disaster. One only has to look to former Prime Minister, Jim Bolger’s remarks after their 16-6 defeat at the hands of Australia in the 1991 World Cup semi-finals; he was willing to talk about war and natural disaster – anything but rugby. There is also the increase in visits to the psychiatrist after defeats in 1999, 2003 and 2007.
The All Blacks start every game with the psychological advantage of knowing that victory and defeat mean more to them than it does to anyone else.

Then there is the superb grassroots organization that has ensured that the New Zealand All Blacks have a source of talent to draw on. Clubs like the Aukland Rugby Union organize school competitions, which allow them to identify and draw on talent at a young stage. Then there are several layers of national teams that provide international experience to players, which prepare the lucky few for entry into the exclusive national team. Teams like the Maori All Blacks (comprises mainly of players of Maori decent), the Heartland XV and Junior All Blacks are training grounds to identify the best in a similar way to the way the Royal Marine Commandos provide a training ground to the Special Boat Squadron.

Not only does the New Zealand Rugby Union’s system allow it to maximise the resources that it has at hand, there is also a system where promising players from outside New Zealand, particularly in the Pacific Island Nations to become All Blacks. Michael Jones, one of the most respected players in All Black history made his international debut for Samoa before becoming an All Black (there was also the converse – Va’aiga Tuigamala had a second international career playing for Samoa after his career as an All Black.) The interchangeability between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands got one of my school friends to state that “Western Samoa is effectively the New Zealand B Team” during the 1991 World Cup.

The only two comparable grassroots organization in sport that are perhaps Germany’s football system, which was developed after a decline of the national team in the early 1990s and the NFL’s draft system. These are two systems that have far more resources at their disposal than the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Developing talent internally has given New Zealand a ready source of talent to tap on and having rugby as a national religion gives the All Blacks an edge when they step onto the pitch.

There is also the issue of the culture within the team. While New Zealand has its share of superstars like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, every All Black player is reminded that this is a team sport and nobody becomes bigger than the team.

There is the unifying Maori dance – the hakka which every All Black player performs regardless of ethnic religion. I’ve always been amazed by the way obviously ethnic Caucasians like Jeff Wilson used to perform this obviously Maori ritual with intensity.

There is however more than just a war dance to keep the players unified. A list of the cultural building exercises can be found at

One of the most notable interesting factors in this list is the fact that the players have to clean up after themselves. This helps keep them humble in the face of things and when people see the superstars of the team picking up after themselves, they remember that this is a team game.

When you get people to gel together successfully, you create a situation where everyone is successful, despite whatever may happen to a superstar. The All Blacks can still win without Dan Carter.

Other teams have fallen short when their superstars have fallen. The most glaring comparison can be found in the 2014 World Cup when Brazil, the host nation and a nation with an abundance of talent and regards the World Cup as its birthright, were humiliated by Germany in the semi-finals. Brazil is supposed to be to soccer what New Zealand is to rugby union.

What happened was simple – Brazil became dependent on a single superstar called Neymar, who’s brilliance was often enough to cover up the flaws in the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF). Neymar had to be carried off on a stretcher and that was the end of Brazil as a football team.

Generally speaking, the guy with the abundance of talent and money has the advantage. However, the success of the All Blacks has shown that money and size are not everything. Knowing what to do with what you have can be far more important. 

The statistics speak for themselves. The All Blacks have a 75 percent winning streak against all opponents. When you look at their winning rate, it is even more impressive. The only two teams where the winning rate is less than 70 percent are against the Australian Wallabies (68 percent) and the South African Springboks ( 58 percent). The only top Northern Hemisphere teams to have ever beaten the All Blacks are France (76 percent win rate against France), England (80 percent win rate against England) and Wales (90 percent win rate against Wales). The only team to beat the All Blacks in 2015 was Australia.

These are statistics that no other sports teams have come close to achieving. So, surely its worth studying what this team from this small island nation has been doing right. 

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