Modern rugby times provide important challenges to the culture and tradition of the black jersey. The way we face these challenges will determine whether this wonderful culture will live or die.
It was way back in 1987 when we won the World Cup for the first and only time, and now in the wake of the 22-10 semifinal loss to Australia at best 20 years will have past the next time we can say we are World Champions.
Growing up in New Zealand in the 70’s and 80’s there was no doubt that we were the best in the World, we didn’t need World Cups to tell us that. Our record spoke for itself, sure we lost the odd test series but our overall record was incredible and a great source of pride. I used to love the symmetry of the All Black tour results as they were almost all lined up perfectly in the “Won” column. Now a generation of young New Zealanders doesn’t know what it feels like to be the best in the World.
If so many people now don’t know what it feels like to be the best does this mean that the All Black myth is slowly becoming extinct? Why have we not been able to continue our dominance into the modern era? What has changed and what has been lost? More importantly how can we recover something that most new Zealanders consider is ours by right?
In the modern era there are fewer and fewer opportunities to recover this status as the Rugby World now runs in 4 year orbits around the World Cup sun. It won’t matter much (and who will remember anyway) how many Tri nations or Bledisloe Cups are won when the focus is being directed almost without blinking at the brightness of the World Cup. We have to find our way back to the top and we must choose very carefully the leader of this important mission and the route we will take.
Earlier this year I asked myself if I wanted the All Blacks to win the World Cup with John Mitchell as coach. It felt strange to be questioning something I never imagined would be in doubt and I did so in the wake of the Christian Cullen saga when one of our greatest and most brilliant players was so harshly criticised in public by Mitchell. It wasn’t just Cullen that I felt was being attacked but the whole All Black tradition, those games he won, those tries he scored, none of which would have happened had Mitchell been in charge. He wanted to rob us of those wonderful memories of breathtaking tries and sweeping cover tackles by saying that Cullen wasn’t up to being an All Black. One of the best not up to it? How could that be?
Anyone knows that the first rule of man management is “Criticise in private, praise in public” Only a weak person feels the need to attack another person in public. It feels to me like Mitchell is still trying to make up for the fact the he was not good enough to play in a test match, and this inferiority complex shows in his attitude. Last week he said that it was a “great honor to play against the Springboks, an honor that few players achieved”. In saying this he unknowingly revealed his hidden wounds. He will have to deal with these personally (as all of us who don’t make the All Blacks do). With such baggage it was no wonder that the All Blacks were not able to fulfill their potential under his leadership.
If we want to be successful again we need a genuine leader in charge of the All Blacks. We have had a CEO in John Hart and a factory manager in John Mitchell. What characterizes both of these roles in modern society is distance, distance from the workers on the floor. The factory manager and CEO are removed from the day to day graft and individual trials and tribulations of the workers. Down on the factory floor is where real leaders are found, someone who can resolve situations as they arise, be there to support a worker or player when the need arises. A leader is always with the people, providing encouragement, motivation, and discipline when needed. The next All Black coach must come from down on the factory floor. Someone who knows how to build a team, someone who can honor the tradition and culture of New Zealand rugby. Perhaps Murray Mexted, Sean Fitzpatrick, or Todd Blackadder, or maybe Colin Cooper?
When looking for reasons for the All Blacks demise it’s sometimes hard to see what’s missing, its easy to see the turnovers and missed tackles but harder to see the underlying causes of these. One of the major changes in modern professional rugby has been the elimination of traditional tours and test series. These tours (as John Mitchell well knows) served to educate and initiate young New Zealander rugby players into the traditions, rights, and obligations of being an All Black. Older players spent a lot of time around the new players and unconsciously the mystique rubbed off on the new boys, later they in turn took on the roles of mentors and elders. There were 2 games a week and each had to be won. For the opposition it was their once in a lifetime chance for immortality and they gave their all, for the All Blacks there was a tradition to be upheld. Every game had to be won in its own right; there was no semi final on the horizon, nothing to hold back for.
The honor of wearing the black jersey was exchanged for the obligation to give everything and to win each game. The expectation to win and pride in the black jersey manifested itself in the never say die attitude that the All Blacks showed for so many years, it didn’t seem to matter how far behind they got you always knew that we could come back and win, it was expected and self fulfilling. The winning habit and expectation were cultivated on these long tours.
When it came to the crunch in the Sydney semifinal there was no belief and the tradition was too long ago for the current players to remember. Australia believed they could win all the way to the end, they have built a tradition not on winning every game but on selecting certain games and getting “up” for those games. We believed we could win right up to the kickoff, but when Australia showed their resolve our belief crumbled into hope. There was no one educated in the All Black tradition to lead from the front and instill that belief. All our preparation dissolved in the face of the determination of the Aussies. We were prepared physically but sadly lacked the mental and spiritual strength to triumph in the face of the supercharged Australians.
I have been living in Argentina for 5 years now and am easily picked out as a foreigner. I am asked regularly where I come from and with pride answer “I’m from New Zealand”. More often than not the taxi driver or shop owner will let out a sigh and say “Ah the All Blacks, the best in the World” I cringe a bit and have to say honestly “Actually, no we are not the World Champions and haven’t been for sometime” The reaction is often one of surprise. People here just assume that we have been and always will be the best.
I hope that one day I will again be able to answer these enquiries with a “Yes” For now though I have to just hope that there are enough people who remember what it was that made the All Blacks unbeatable for so long, and hope that this cultural legacy can be maintained by making the Black jersey sacred again.
All around the World traditional cultures are becoming extinct, crushed under the materialistic force of the consumer society. If we want to keep alive the All Black culture we must return to the factory floors of rugby, and the initiation rituals of traditional tours, otherwise the myth of All Black invincibility will become just that.