“The Jersey, The Secrets Behind the World's Most Successful Team” by Peter Bills (published by Pan Books)

How New Zealanders took the ball and ran with it

A bit of an odd thing happened after Peter Bills published his book in August 2018 about the all-conquering New Zealand All Blacks rugby union teams that had a better winning record than any other sports teams in history – they actually started to lose more and to look shaky.
25. September 2022 8:27

That book was a hardback and now in August 2022 comes the paperback edition, with the addition of a new chapter examining what has gone wrong in the past four years for the mighty Blacks, including their chastening 2019 Rugby World Cup exit. Bills also looks at their prospects for the upcoming World Cup in France in 2023, and on this count he is decidedly pessimistic.

So how did a country of two small islands far away at the bottom of the world, and with a population of just 4.8 million people in 2017-18, conquer an entire world sport, that bruising game played with a strangely shaped ball that is inclined to bounce unpredictably?

The author understandably begins his account with the arrival of British colonialism in New Zealand in 1840 – the earlier Maori forefathers and other Pacific voyagers didn’t know rugby union – but his real focus is 2004-2017, when the Blacks played 145 Tests, winning an extraordinary 123 and losing just 19. The added chapter, however, carries the heading “No longer the power nation?”, and the first line “But that was then, this is now”.

First, recap that rugby, a staunchly amateur sport, went professional in 1995 after the Rugby World Cup was launched in 1987, to be competed for every four years,. At stake is the Webb Ellis Cup, named after clergyman and alleged accidental inventor of rugby football William Webb Ellis, 1806-1872, born in Lancashire, UK, and a pupil at Rugby School, Warwickshire: It is said that at Rugby in 1823 he bent the rules of a school football match – instead of kicking the ball in return, he picked it up and ran down the pitch.

That 1987 Rugby World Cup was duly won by the All Blacks, strong favourites and on home turf, beating France 29-9 in the final in Auckland. But after that, despite their otherwise dominance in world rankings, things somehow seemed to always go wrong World Cup-wise for New Zealand, with Australia taking the trophy in 1991 and 1999, South Africa in 1995 and 2007, and England becoming the only Northern Hemisphere winners in 2003. New Zealand appeared in only one of those five finals, losing 15-12 to South Africa in Johannesburg in 1995.

The wobbles led to people calling them “World Cup chokers”. Serial winners but then serial losers. Why couldn’t they get over the line? One likely answer – arrogance. A piece of their mind told them that all they had to do to win was turn up. The ship was righted, so to speak, when the All Blacks prevailed in 2011, again beating France in Auckland, this time 8-7, and then becoming the first team to retain the Holy Grail with a 34-17 victory over Australia at Twickenham, London, in 2015.

Thus, to that date New Zealand had three wins, South Africa and Australia two each and England one. Would the Blacks, the world’s most successful team by far, proven champions, make it a hat-trick in Japan in 2019? By this stage, Bills recounts in his new chapter, not only had New Zealand won the 2015 tournament with Steve Hansen as coach, he had been assistant to coach Graham Henry since 2004, including during the win in 2011.

When Henry retired in 2011 with an 85.4 percent win ratio (103 Tests, 88 wins, 15 losses), they said no one in the modern era would ever match that. Hansen did. By the time he left the job in 2019 he had a win ratio of 86.92 percent after overseeing 93 wins in 107 games with four draws and 10 defeats. New Zealand was the benchmark for every other nation that played the game.

How then, has Henry become known not as the coach who lifted the cup in 2015 but the man who lost it four years later? Answer – rugby-obsessed New Zealanders saw their team’s awful 19-7 drubbing by England in the semi-final in Japan as the team’s worst-ever World Cup loss. (South Africa beat England in the final, thus equalling New Zealand’s three Webb Ellis wins.)

See chapter 17 for Peter Bills’ thorough analysis of the All Blacks’ relative decline and his gloomy prognosis for France in September 2023. There probably isn’t time in 12 months to redress all the issues, he says, beginning with the much-debated appointment of Ian Foster as the new head coach after the debacle in Japan.

“The Jersey” took three years from creation to completion in 2018. It had the assistance of New Zealand Rugby, the governing body, but was written for a worldwide audience, not just New Zelanders. In 2017 Bills, with 19 other sports books behind him, spent almost five months in the country on research and he interviewed more than 90 people around the world. He does not claim to have written the definitive account, acknowledging many previous excellent tomes, but he says he does offer frech perspectives, different angles and original ideas.

Looking back to the 1840s, Bills finds a direct link  between that New Zealand founding culture  and the ethos that has shaped the All Blacks. The first settlers’ ship that arrived in 1840 took 18 uncomfortable weeks in what could be heaving, threatening seas, and when they finally arrived there was next to nothing to cheer them. The hardships that confronted them are today defining the characteristics of New Zealanders.

Come World War One, New Zealand troops were able to display an unwillingness to accept defeat, the ability to dig deep and stay calm in adversity, and to continue making coherant decisions in the midst of chaos. Bills describes it as the sacrificing of personal concerns or causes to the mantra of helping your mates, As on the battlefield, so on the playing field.

By that time there had been the 1905 first fully representative New Zealand team to tour the Northern Hemisphere, winning 34 of their 35 games, losing only by a disputed try to Wales (3-0). It is said these “Originals” popularised both the intinidating haka and the name “All Blacks”.

From 1884 to 1914, in all matches, the New Zealanders played 114, won 107, drew two and lost five, a win ratio of 93.85 percent. The 1924 Northern Hemisphere tour saw the team unbeaten in 32 games, earning the name “ the Invincibles”. For a young nation looking for its own identity, rugby became a way to make a name on the world stage, to gain a sense of achievement, to be noticed. A way of life, a religion, in fact.

Between the 1920s and 1940s there were only 54 percent wins but in the 1950s and 1960s, 80 percent. How? Many of the greatest players have come from rural communities, where kids tend to demonstrate greater resilience, accustomed to the hardships wrought by nature. It is a simpler, more pragmatic life, where the basic aspects are better understood.

Children also learn a greater variety of sports, thus enhancing their ball skills. The school system inculcates a passion for the famous jersey, better than any other such system in the world. Rugby dominates over all other sports. It is tradition and culture, a grand obsession.

Bills further contends that the ongoing geographical challenge, such as earthquakes, is another seed of the nation’s enduring rugby prowess. The stoic citizens are long versed in the ability to withstand adversity at its hardest, to fight and conquer it. They have been toughened both mentally and physically. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without toil and there is no substitute for effort. This DNA is carried by its rugby players. Even the clear air of the antipodes is cited as a factor in the production of so many  talented young sportsmen and women.

The All Blacks wear the jersey, and if ever a single item of sporting clothing were revered, with an almost messianic zeal, this is it, writes Bills. Probably the only other comparison in the entire sporting world is golf’s Green Jacket for the Masters at Augusta National in the United States.

There’s more – much, much more – as Bills delves into just about everything: the haka, the talented Polynesians enticed to New Zealand, the brutality and ruthlessness of the game, the pressure of expectation, the difference between the two hemispheres, head injuries, women’s participation and so on. It is a rather long-winded and exhausting 360 pages – like the ref forgot to blow the final whistle – but hugely readable for fans of the sport. It did well in New Zealand.

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