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Being an All-Black

• Posted in New Zealand / Rugby Union • By JoeBaker

The countdown to the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand is almost over. Much of the talk has been about the Lions squad selection. Now it is focusing on the challenge of the Tour itself and the almighty test that the All Blacks will present in the 3-match series.

The New Zealand rugby team have been viewed as the most exciting and best on the planet for years, a view only confirmed by their consecutive World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015, the first side to achieve such a feat. Many have tried and failed to take them on at their own attacking, exhilarating game. Save for Ireland’s impressive win last year they have been an irrepressible, unstoppable winning machine.

So, what is it that makes an All-Black?

The foundations

You aren’t taught how to be an All Black. You are made into one. This astonishingly successful side is built from the bottom up, with generation after generation being taught from an early age how to run, catch, pass and try to avoid opponentS, rarely turning to the boot. As these youngsters mature they take part in quality competitions that only develops their pedigree further, talent taking on talent and enhancing the skills and physicality that has been gradually developing since they could first catch a ball. It is a never-ending production line of talent taught in a certain way, with a specific attitude towards the game. As soon as one great departs, another future one arrives. Just look at how seamlessly Beauden Barret stepped into the shoes of Dan Carter.

The style

Speed. Power. Technique. Invention. Consistency. These are just some of the defining features of New Zealand rugby. The pace of their handling is remarkable, be it through forwards making extra yards or the backs racing through gaps in the opposition defence. Their passing is quick and concise, with backs moves creative and precise. Whilst their forwards are just adept at winning turnovers or making a nuisance in rucks as they are breaking the gain line and setting the foundations for another attack. They are ferocious in defence, with a fast and high defensive line. Watching New Zealand play, you also notice a remarkable ability to offload in contact and keep the momentum of an attack going. And don’t think they have been so successful by purely playing beautiful rugby. Like any winning side, New Zealand know how to get their hands dirty and grind a result out when needed.

The mind

It is clear for everyone to see that the All Blacks have developed a winning mentality that enthuses them during matches and creates fear in opponents. This isn’t just formed through confidence and determination. Remember – this was a team that used to have a reputation for choking at World Cups. A culture has been created that focuses on individual character and personal leadership, with humility core to this ethos. For example, the likes of Richie McCaw would be regularly found tidying up after themselves, rather than leaving it for other staff. They believe remarkable success can’t be achieved without keeping your feet firmly on the floor. Next time they play, watch Kieran Read just before kick-off – he’ll be starting at the farthest point of the stadium, searching for the bigger picture. The team has regularly worked with sports psychologists to help them cope mentally under pressure. It is no coincidence that in the big moments in matches New Zealand often ruthlessly deliver.

Champions Do Extra

We now know a lot about the concept of marginal gains – thanks mainly to Sir David Brailsford and the success of the Team Sky and GB cycling teams – and New Zealand are another fine example of a group of athletes expertly utilising the theory. They use the mantra of ‘Champions Do Extra’. These players, no matter the age are constantly working individually and collectively to find incremental ways to improve. This is done on the training pitch, in the gym and even at home in terms of how they prepare ahead of matches to be at their physical and mental peak. A focus on continual improvement and the creation of a learning environment that allows such an attitude to thrive are why this amazingly successful team always seem to be on an upward trajectory.

The jersey

Every international player is passionate about playing for their country. Every international player wants to give everything for the shirt and wears it with pride. Yet there is something different, almost mystical, about the famous New Zealand jersey. Rugby remains the primary symbol of New Zealand’s presence on the world stage. Each player feels and understands a responsibility for the All Black culture and history every time they step out onto the field. A sense of higher purpose, of working hard to proudly represent the legends who have gone before them such as Jonah Lomu and to be role models to young New Zealanders. Surely this creates a pressure that would be too much to bare for a sports team? However, this isn’t any normal group of athletes. It drives them to give that extra more and helps focus in on their end goals. An All Black follows the saying ‘leave the jersey in a better place’ – meaning a willingness to put everything on the line for their teammates and country, motivating them to give that extra bit more and helping them to focus-in on their end goals.

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