Why is New Zealand so good at Rugby?

26 03 2016

Whenever I mention that I am a New Zealand citizen, I am asked one question much more than others. Why is New Zealand so good at rugby? I have always wondered this myself and I thought now was as good a time as any to delve further into it and attempt to explain once and for all why New Zealand is so good at rugby.

New Zealand has a long history of success in rugby. Dating back to the early 1900s when the sport was truly for amateurs the All Blacks have reigned supreme on the international rugby scene. The first All Blacks team to tour Britain, known as the Originals, won 31 of their 32 matches. Throughout the twentieth century New Zealand continued their dominance, and as the game has moved into the professional era the tiny little country of New Zealand continues to be the best team in the world.

New Zealand is a country of 4.4 million people. For them to be so dominant at anything is quite a feat.  But to be dominate at one of the most globally played sports in the word is incredible.  The purpose of this blog post is to figure out how New Zealand has come to dominate the sport and why they continue to do so. To do this however, the first thing we must do is debunk a couple of myths that are often referred to by non-Kiwi’s when discussing New Zealand’s rugby superiority.

The first, and most common, myth is that the Kiwi’s import players from the Pacific Islands and therefore their selection pool is actually much greater than it first appears. Throughout their existence, the All Blacks have had 1146 players don the black jersey. 86 of them have been born outside of New Zealand. When you compare that to the current England rugby team, the winners of the Rugby World Cup fifth place playoff Six Nations, it is miniscule. The current English team has 8 players out of the wider training squad of 40 that were born outside of the UK, including 2 born in New Zealand. They also have an Australian coach.

While the All Blacks made up almost exclusively of players born in New Zealand, so to are other teams. Samoa recruit many players who were born in New Zealand, but have Samoan heritage. Tonga and Fiji have done this in the past as well. At the 2015 Rugby World Cup New Zealand had more players playing for other nations than it did for the All Blacks.

The second myth is that New Zealand is a one sport nation, and they ‘put all their eggs in one basket’ when it comes to rugby. While rugby is certainly the most popular sport in New Zealand, the nation does remarkably well in other sports given the small population. New Zealand is the home of Lydia Ko, the top female golfer in the world, and many of the Kiwi sports teams have had success. The New Zealand cricket team made it to the final of the One Day International World Cup in 2015 and both the men’s and women’s teams are currently undefeated at the Twenty 20 World Cup, being played in India. At the 2012 Summer Olympics New Zealand won 13 medals, including six golds. When you break that down per capita, New Zealand placed fourth on the medal table. Rowers, such as Mahe Drysdale, led the way at the Olympics and New Zealand continue to be a very strong rowing nation. New Zealand is also very competitive in the America’s Cup and has had plenty of recent success in Rugby league, winning the 2008 World Cup and coming second in 2013. Even the All Whites, the national football team have qualified for a World Cup.

New Zealand is far from a one sport nation and certainly punches above its weight in several sports. Rugby does lead the way however. Both the All Blacks and the Black Ferns sit atop the world rankings and this is a point of pride amongst all New Zealanders.  Rugby is the backbone of all Kiwi sport and the nations international teams are close cousins of the All Blacks, as you can see by their nicknames.

Sport

Mens

Womens

Aussie Rules Football

Falcons

N/A

Basketball

Tall Blacks

Tall Ferns

Bowls

Blackjacks

Cricket

Blackcaps

Blackferns

Gridiron

Iron Blacks

N/A

Football

All White

Football Ferns

Hockey

Blacksticks

Ice Hockey

Ice Blacks

Ice Fernz

Netball

N/A

Silver Ferns

Rugby League

Kiwis

Kiwi Ferns

Rugby Union

All Blacks

Black Ferns

Wheelchair Rugby

Wheel Blacks

Softball

Black Sox

White Sox

Surf Lifesaving

Blackfins

The question I posed above however is not why are the All Blacks so good at rugby, it is why is New Zealand so good at rugby? To answer that properly we have to begin at the grassroots level and work our way up.The simple answer to why New Zealand are so good at rugby is that it is ingrained in the culture. Winning is an expectation, and anything less is not considered good enough.

When the All Blacks lost in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter final to France there was a national enquiry. Granted, some of that was debating whether or not Wayne Barnes should ever be allowed to referee again, but for the most part it focussed on what was wrong with New Zealand rugby. Since that defeat they have not lost a match at the Rugby World Cup and have become the first ever repeat winners of the tournament.

From a very young age New Zealanders are involved in rugby. Rugby programmes for young kids are very common throughout the cities and schools encourage learning the laws of the game and playing touch rugby from the time students enter primary school. As pupils get older the rugby becomes much more competitive. Tackling is taught to pupils at a young age and therefore the techniques are learned when children are smaller. The recent English debate of banning tackling in youth rugby led to some laughs in New Zealand!

The way the game is taught to the youth in New Zealand is unique as well. The players are taught the skills of the game, rather than specific tactics and are just left to enjoy the games. In the summer all players are encouraged to play touch rugby as a way of improving their skill and this has contributed to the development of talent throughout the country.

As pupils move onto secondary school the rugby becomes very competitive. Families who have promising rugby players have been known to move houses into catchment areas for the big rugby schools in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch. The secondary school rugby culture leads to many supporters coming out to matches as the quality of rugby is usually of a very high standard.

Following high school there is ample opportunity to continue playing rugby regardless of level. There are endless club teams in New Zealand and at the Division 1 level the rugby is of outstanding quality. The game is promoted properly.  For example, there is always a featured club ‘game of the week’ played at Rugby Park in Christchurch which draws a significant crowd. It is this structure that has allowed New Zealand to have success at the U20 level

The club structure of the New Zealand Rugby Union

New Zealand All Blacks

Blues

Chiefs

Crusaders

Highlanders

Hurricanes

Auckland

North Harbour

Northland

Bay of Plenty

Counties Manukau

Kings County

Thames Valley

Waikato

Buller

Canterbury

Mid-Canterbury

South Canterbury

Tasman

West Coast

North Otago

Otago

Southland

East Coast

Poverty Bay

Hawke’s Bay

Wanganui Manawatu

Wairarapa-Bush

Horowhenua-Kapita

Wellington

The club structure of the Canterbury Rugby Union

Canterbury Rugby Union

Ellesmere

North Canterbury

Metropolitan (Christchurch)

Banks Peninsula RFC

Burnham RFC

Darfield RFC

Diamond Harbour RFC

Dunsandel/Irwell RFC

Kirwee RFC

Leeston RFC

Lincoln RFC

Prebbleton RFC

Rolleston RFC

Selwyn RFC

Sheffield RFC

Southbridge RFC

Springston RFC

Waihora RFC

West Melton RFC

Hanmer Springs RFC

Amberley RFC

Ashley RFC

Cheviot RFC

Culverden RFC

Glenmark RFC

Kaiapoi RFC

Hurunui RFC

Ohoka RFC

Oxford RFC

Saracens RFC

United RFC

Waiau RFC

Woodend RFC

Belfast RFC

Burnside RFC

Christchurch FC

High School Old Boys RFC

Hornby RFC

Linwood RFC

Lyttelton RFC

Marist Albion RFC

Lincoln University RFC

Merivale RFC

New Brighton RFC

Otautahi RFC

Parklands RFC

Shirley RFC

Suburbs RFC

Sumner RFC

Sydenham RFC

University RFC

The structure of the New Zealand club rugby system goes a long way in keeping the purity of rugby and keeping the All Black players hungry and humble. In most professional sports the players are signed to a contract for their professional team and are only exposed to that environment. What this does is create a cocoon effect amongst the players. In New Zealand, in order to play for a Super Rugby side (Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders or Hurricanes), you must be registered with a club team in region of the side you wish to play for. This ensures that players are out in the community and are getting back to their roots on a regular basis. When players are recovering from injury, or dropped from their representative team, they are expected to suit up for their club team and play games with players who are little more than ‘weekend warriors’. The easiest way to explain this is to tell you about my experience as a rugby player in 2008.

I registered to play for the University RFC, who have teams in both Division 1 and Division 2 of the Christchurch league. At the club we would train regularly with Crusaders Andy Ellis, Stephen Brett, Ti’i Paulo, and Kieran Read. Although these four were not always required to be at training or club events, they would show up regularly because they felt an attachment to the club. The four even played games with us when the Crusaders had bye weeks, or if they were recovering from an injury. Joining a rugby club is a unique experience and the players enjoyed coming back. This is part of what keeps the professional rugby players grounded when compared to European football players or athletes in many of the ‘big’ North American sports.

The overwhelming enrolment in rugby has led to New Zealand having incredible depth at the top level. Over the years they have been able to replace the likes of Josh Kronfeld with Richie McCaw, Andrew Mehrtens with Dan Carter and Tana Umaga with Ma’a Nonu. The development of talent is like no other nation and the players seem to be able to replace one another without skipping a beat. What other nation could win a World Cup final with their fourth choice fly half as the All Blacks did with Stephen Donald in 2011? This talent is a result of the love for the game New Zealanders have and how hard the athletes work to succeed, but it also has to do with the quality of coaching in New Zealand.

While most secondary schools would be thrilled just to have anyone coach their rugby team, New Zealand is very different. When I initially decided to move to New Zealand I applied for a coaching position at a local school. I did not get the job, as they decided the appropriate person was former All Black captain Reuben Thorne. This example shows just how seriously Kiwis take their rugby, and even at the youth level they deem it important to have top level coaches teaching the game. While New Zealand is known for producing rugby players, it has also produced a number of high quality coaches that now lead international teams around the world. Three of the four international teams in the United Kingdom are coached by Kiwi’s, as were the last edition of the British and Irish Lions.

So what is it that makes New Zealand so good at rugby? Is it the culture? The passion? The coaching? The depth? The grassroots? Or the structure of the club rugby? I would argue that it is all of the above. New Zealand as a nation is extremely proud of their rugby culture and is serious about every aspect of it. Until other nations match New Zealand’s investment and dedication towards rugby the ‘little guys‘ will continue to be on top. 

Check out my foreign New Zealand XV here

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