As an Englishman and a former coach of Argentina, it pains me to say this: but there is something about the All Blacks. In the years since 2010, the three time world champions have maintained a win record of over 90% in all matches. Rugby teams around the world look to them as the example of how the game should be played. And coaches of all sports try to replicate the formula that has helped them to become the most dominant sports team in the world with a population of just 4,000,000 people-
Most rugby strength coaches never get to work with a world cup winner. Through sheer dumb luck though, I have been lucky enough to work with five of them in my career: Sonny Bill Williams at the Sydney Roosters, and Richard Kahui, Cory Jane, Liam Messam and Stephen Donald at Toshiba Brave Lupus.
As I have written many times on this blog, I believe that success leaves clues. So naturally I tried to soak up every experience I could from working with these guys. I tried to look for the unifying themes of their success, and also to compare this to the outside beliefs of the public or media who have written at length about the All Blacks. Here are the top five
One AB told me…
“New Zealand is a small place. Everyone knows an All Black. It’s not a big deal. You can’t have an ego.”
“Unless you’re Richie McCaw or Dan Carter, once you get your first major injury, you’re pretty much finished. There is that much depth.”
Lastly, another player said to me in conversation…
“If you’re an All Black, every team you play against will treat it like a world cup final. It is a high pressure environment. You can’t ever let up.”
The overarching theme of my interaction with All Black players is their humility. None of them had an inflated sense of their worth to the team. They treated everyone the same, whether an intern or the head coach. And they all work hard.
Whereas most may assume that they are All Blacks because they are humble players, I believe that the All Black environment exerts almost as much influence on the players character. When you grow up with everyone knowing an All Black, when you have to be at your best every week or risk tarnishing the legacy, and when you are only an injury or a run of bad from away from having your spot taken by an equally world class player, it must be difficult to get comfortable and grow an ego.
Regardless of what came first (the chicken or the egg?!) to me the lesson is clear: only allow good people into your organisation, and once they’re in, demand high ethical and moral standards. Don’t be afraid to force out people who don’t adhere to your standards, encourage competition between your team members, and put people under pressure to achieve.
Ask strength coaches what they think sets the All Blacks apart, and most will assume the guys are putting up insane numbers in the gym. True, they are all good athletes. They were big, strong, powerful, fast and fit. But this should hardly be a surprise when rugby is almost a religion in New Zealand. The sport has its pick of the nation’s finest athletes, just like soccer in England, wrestling or weightlifting in Central Asia, or American Football in the USA. So half the job is done for the strength coach before a barbell is even touched.
But honestly, none of the All Blacks was the best performing athlete I have ever worked with in any of the major physical qualities. They were up there, but I’ve worked with better. However, without question they were all the most intelligent athletes I have ever worked with. They are all students of the game of rugby. They understand rugby intimately, they are constantly exploring different tactical schemes in their heads.
When the All Blacks play, they are always several moves ahead of their opponents. Not once in two years did I beat Cory Jane at a game of cards. Whilst he and many other All Blacks might not hail from a traditionally academic background, make no mistake, they are all smart, and they approach the game with this same level of intellect.
A senior player in the Argentina squad once said to me of playing the All Blacks…
“When you play New Zealand, you can hang with them for the first 30 to 40 minutes or so, and you take confidence from this. But in reality, they are just figuring you out. Once they do, the floodgates open.”
I have experienced this myself as a coach, where it was obvious the All Blacks were going to score a try against us 30s before it happened. The players on the ground could not see it, but from the coach’s viewpoint, one could see the inevitable unfolding. This reinforces to me a major lesson that I have learned throughout my career, which Fergus Connolly talks about in Game Changer. The quality and execution of the tactical game plan is King. At the elite level, all the mental toughness and strength, even all the skill in the world is not going to help you if the plan sucks.
However with that said, one must understand that skill underpins the tactical scheme. The wider array of skills a rugby player can perform, the more tactical schemes become available to the team, the more opportunities there are to beat the opposition. The more deeply engrained those motor skills are, the more effectively the game plan can be executed and the resilient to psychological stress and fatigue the game plan becomes.
Think back to standout games in the All Blacks history and these traits are self evident. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi final against South Africa, New Zealand opened the game looking to run and attack out wide. But South Africa absorbed it well, and then the rain started to pour down. In the second half there was a noticeable change in the game plan as the All Blacks kicked for territory and relied on Dan Carter’s field goals and a drop goal to close out the game.
Likewise, think about Stephen Donald’s penalty goal to win the 2011 World Cup in front of a home crowd who had not seen New Zealand win the tournament for 24 years. This came after being called up to the squad only days before. having been previously been dropped. That is some serious psychological pressure to perform under!
Two things stand out to me when I think about the skills training of the All Blacks I worked with. Firstly: they train fundamental skills religiously. No matter what your position, you are expected to be able pass, kick, catch, tackle, ruck, maul etc. They were by far the best players, they had the least to prove, but they practised the fundamentals of their sport the most.
Secondly: none of the skills training was particularly flashy. It was just solid basics, practised again and again in the context of the sport and position- building game understanding, making decisions, cementing good habits until they become autonomous. I’ve worked with flashier athletes, but to quote Bruce Lee, “Fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks one time, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”.
I have never worked with a more competitive group of athletes than these All Blacks. These guys could turn anything into a competition: cards, X-box, golf, skills games before and after training. Whatever it is, they want to win. This is certainly not a trait that is unique to the All Blacks, but certainly when you combine it with the above factors, that is a recipe for success.
Competition is the engine of productivity. It pushes athletes to get themselves from one another. It desensitises athletes to the pressures of the game, and it gives context to learning; if it doesn’t matter, you’re probably not going to retain it as much. Is there a potential cost, whereby athletes who don’t naturally embrace competition are discouraged from being a part of the programme? Perhaps, but I am not sure this is the kind of individual you want playing in professional sport.
As with many Kiwi players who travel to Japan, the guys I worked with at Toshiba were at the end of their careers. They had already literally won everything in the game of rugby: NPC and Super Rugby titles, Four Nations titles, and the World Cup. Yet each player still had unwavering passion for rugby. They came to work each day with the attitude that there is always something new to learn, idea to try out and improvements to be made.
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