Dr Rudi Webster/File Photo

Commentary by Dr Rudi V. Webster

With a population of just over four million people, New Zealand has achieved the incredible feat of dominating world rugby for more than a hundred years. In a recent article, the New Zealand team was described as the Usain Bolt of rugby; perhaps the foremost team in sport.

West Indies dominated world cricket for about twenty years between the sixties and early nineties, but unlike New Zealand, its team then went into a steady decline and became trapped in an ever-increasing failure spiral. While New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) went through continual self-renewal to stay at the pinnacle of world rugby, West Indies Cricket Board, now Cricket West Indies (CWI), defiantly stuck to the status quo and allowed its cricket to sink to the bottom of the ICC’s Test and ODI rankings. What can CWI learn from NZRU?

Every great team goes through a cycle of growth, optimum performance, stagnation and eventual decline. But decline can be prevented or reversed if a second growth curve or psychological rebirth is created when the team is still playing well. This usually requires honest self-examination, a new vision of the future, reorganization of priorities, and an infusion of new leaders and players with fresh ideas, attitudes and agendas for change. Better systems and structures that reflect the purpose and function of the team are important necessities.

In its hundred year-plus history, the All Blacks have an all-time win rate of 78%.

In 1995 when the game became professional the win rate increased to 84% and since 2011 it has risen to about 93%.

Colin Meads who in 1999 was chosen as New Zealand’s player of the century once said, “When we lost in our days it was a national tragedy, a national disaster and you got, not abused, but scorned by people.” He stated that the All Blacks were motivated by fear, not the fear of losing but the fear of letting their country down. Rugby put New Zealand on the world map and it has become a national

part of New Zealand’s identity.

In an article by Andy Bull of the Guardian, Graham Henry a former All Blacks coach is quoted as saying that when New Zealand lost a match, it was like losing a member of the family, so committed were they to winning.

From an early age, New Zealand boys are taught the basic skills. Mastery of these skills only happens when the boys’ movements are automatic and when they don’t have to think about what their hands and feet should be doing.

In New Zealand catching, passing and running are among the most important fundamentals of rugby and are the first skills that kids learn. Later on, they practise kicking with both feet, passing both ways and reading game situations.

Professionals spend a lot of time practising these simple skills because they know that if they execute them well they will beat their opponents. A rugby expert recently stated that one of the noticeable differences between the teams in Europe and those in New Zealand is the time spent on basics like catching and passing.

Like cricket in Australia, the strength of New Zealand rugby is tied to the standard and competitiveness of youth competitions in the schools and clubs.

When school cricket was strong in the West Indies it was not unusual for schoolboys to take the giant stride from their school team to their island’s team or the West Indies team. Similar leaps from school teams directly to professional rugby teams are taking place in New Zealand.

In the schools, most of the boys play rugby and each school fields multiple teams.

In the top schools, the passion for the game is so strong that it is not unusual to have a pool of 90 boys competing for places in the first 15.

In his article Andy Bull quoted an Englishman who coached at one of the best rugby schools in England and is now coaching at a school in New Zealand. He said that the two schools have similar attendance, but the differences between them are quite stark, the biggest being the number of kids who want to play, and the passion with which they play. His former school in England ran seven rugby teams; his New Zealand school runs 22!

The NZRU believes in getting as many people as possible to play the game. In 2015 that number was approximately 150, 649. Of these, 80,249 were between the ages of 5 to12, 42,314 between the ages of 13 to 20, and 27,821 were 21 years or over. There were 11,713 coaches. Development modules are designed for different age groups so that by the time the boys reach a certain age they would have had exposure to most facets of the game.

The NZRU found that while coaches, parents and administrators regarded winning as the most important outcome, the kids also wanted to win but sought affiliation, enjoyment, a sense of belonging and a feeling of importance.

Teamwork is a pillar on which the All Blacks’ game is built. An interesting Maori concept called “tightening the rope” explains how team synergy works. When Maoris were in their traditional canoes in the ocean and experienced a storm, they would tie each other to the canoe. Unable to leave the canoe, they became fully committed to the common goal and paddled in the same direction. In the game, tighten the ropes means playing together as a cohesive unit to overcome challenges and setbacks or to capitalize on opportunities.

In general terms, 80% of a team’s success comes from 20% of its activities. Like NZRU, CWI should work out what that 20% is for them and design strategies to execute them well. So far, the ICC has allowed West Indies cricket to continue its free fall. One wonders what the world governing body for rugby would do if New Zealand rugby were in a similar freefall.

 

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