Home / News / Business Of Life /  Waiting for the All Blacks, the heart and soul of rugby


June 1995. I was in Ahmedabad, where the outside temperature was hot enough to fry fafda and a dry, dusty wind blew across barren plots. It was an unreal setting to watch rugby, which in India is a monsoon sport. What was happening on the screen was as unreal—there was a 20-year-old man causing havoc on the field in a world cup semi-final. Jonah Lomu, the All Blacks’ wing, had already shaken up the tournament with his phenomenal strength and speed but here, against England, he took brute force to another level.

By the time the match was over New Zealand’s All Blacks had beaten England 45-29; Lomu, with his four tries (what the layman would call touchdowns), had contributed 20 of those points. Much more than the points, though, was the destruction he wrought in the minds of his opponents, reducing them to utter despair. Among the most iconic images of modern sport—“flashbulb memories", as the psychologists call them—are pictures of Lomu, 6ft, 5 inches and weighing 120kg, literally trampling over England’s players as he steamrolled towards the touchline. It was man against boys, though Lomu was probably younger than all those who took him on. The All Blacks marched into the final, heavily favoured to beat the hosts South Africa.

Life has a funny way of changing the script. The All Blacks lost that final to their hosts, who were inspired by the presence of Nelson Mandela in the stadium and the possibility of a historic moment for the newly reborn nation. For Lomu, personally, the story turned more tragic. He had, astonishingly, played through that tournament with an unknown, energy-sapping illness; later that year, it was diagnosed as a rare kidney disorder and so began, effectively, the end of his career. A kidney transplant in 2004 didn’t really work and, though he now lives a full active life, his fondest hope is to be around to see his children grow into adults.

Every time a rugby world cup comes around—and the next edition starts this weekend—thoughts of Lomu crop up, as does the anticipation of watching the All Blacks. Back in 1995, I wasn’t a fully paid-up All Blacks fan; England were still very watchable, especially the silk-smooth running of Jeremy Guscott (think Michael Holding in his prime) and Australia had the wonderfully wacky David Campese and the cool kicker Michael Lynagh. Watching Lomu—and his teammates, and their wonderful attacking style—helped me get off the fence and onside, as it were, of the All Blacks. That relationship also helped me get closer to the game; my interest in rugby had been sparked mainly by the fact that I lived next door to the sole rugby ground in Kolkata and could see the game from my bedroom window. It was, however, a tenuous link; there was little to nurture it in the absence of live TV broadcast (or even archival footage), and one depended on video cassettes sent over by indulgent relatives living overseas. That changed, of course, with the arrival of the Internet and satellite television and over the past two decades rugby fans have been able to see, more closely and frequently, just what makes the All Blacks the winningest—to use an Americanism—team in all sport.

The statistics alone are formidable: The All Blacks have won an astonishing 76% of all the “tests" (as internationals are called) they’ve played since their first in 1903. By contrast, Australia’s winning record in Test cricket is 46%, and even if you count a draw as a win it still doesn’t match the All Blacks. Since they lifted the world cup in 2011, they’ve won 42 out of 47 tests. They’ve never been beaten by Ireland or Scotland; cricket’s equivalent would probably be Australia not losing a Test to South Africa or Sri Lanka. But the All Blacks are about more than mere numbers; in New Zealand, they occupy something close to religious status. The closest sporting comparison I can think of is Brazil and football but there is one huge difference: where Brazilian football has plunged into corruption and mediocrity, rugby in New Zealand has retained its purity. And the All Blacks play rugby’s equivalent of jogo bonito, the beautiful game, passing the ball to hand instead of kicking it.

My colleague Andrew Fernando, who spent many years in New Zealand before returning to Sri Lanka, says the All Blacks occupy a cultural space of their own. “In many ways, they are seen as the country’s primary ambassadors and are a major source of national pride," he says. “People walk around with a smile on their face after a big win and there is a pall for at least 24 hours when they lose. Nothing else has that visible effect on the country." The mix of sport, culture and spiritualism extends to the enacting of the haka, the traditional pre-match Maori war dance that ends with a throat-slitting gesture. It’s not pretty and it’s not without controversy but few opponents are so bold as to mock it (Campese, tellingly, was one of them).

That’s all very well but how does New Zealand produce such an endless stream of quality rugby players? Curiously, a large part of this possibly stems from its size. A country of 4.6 million people might be a ridiculously small talent pool but the upside is the homogeneity and the ability to set a structure in place. It starts with schoolchildren (pre-teen players are endearingly called “Smallblacks"), through a well-calibrated introduction to each facet of the game (passing, tackling, scrums) and gradual expansion from seven-a-sides to the full XV. That intensity also fuels the sense of competition, an awareness that if you aren’t good enough there will be others waiting to take your place.

Richie McCaw, the current All Blacks captain and arguably the greatest of them all, recently put it in perspective in an interview to The Sunday Times newspaper: “When you first get into the All Blacks you wonder ‘now what?’ and that’s when it hits you. It’s not good enough to just be an All Black because if it is you won’t last here."

That spirit made Lomu play on through his illness. That’s what I’ll be cheering for over the next month. The All Blacks may not win the world cup but they will play the beautiful game.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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