All Blacks keep New Zealand pulsing on the map of the world
Hansen’s men are favourites to retain the Webb Ellis trophy for the third successive time
TJ Perenara leads the New Zealand haka before the game against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium last November. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Steve Hansen has a way of communicating his displeasure much as the sun has a way of transmitting heat.
On August 17th, New Zealand retained the Bledisloe Cup for the 17th straight year by handing Australia a demoralising 37-0 defeat at Eden Park. That win marked a stunning 57 points turnaround since the countries had last met just a fortnight earlier.
Despite that turnaround, the All-Blacks lost their coveted number one ranking to Wales, ending a 509-week spell at the top that stretched back to 2009. Hansen’s neutral expression falls somewhere between amused and sardonic and now all the creases and frown marks were embellished as he digested this contradictory news.
“How do you work that out?” he groused. “We won the cup last night and lost the ranking. We just need to get ourselves in the right frame of mind to go to the World Cup and win that. I’m not too worried about rankings.”
That can’t be true, though. The All Blacks rugby culture dictates that any slight or challenge to their role within the game demands a telling response. It was little wonder that Warren Gatland laughed a little uneasily at finding his team at such a conspicuous place so close to the tournament.
“They’re favourites for the World Cup,” Eddie Jones said bluntly of Wales, wasting no opportunity to turn the knife on his neighbours. Hansen, too, had this loaded message for his former team.
“They’ve been great, no problem. Now, they’ve got the expectation. They’re the number one team in the world taking it into the World Cup. It couldn’t be better timing.”
It’s easy to imagine Gatland nodding at this. As a New Zealander and former All-Black, he knows the irony contained within. Wales have yet to reach a World Cup final and, as it turned out, hung on to the first place ranking for all of one week, slipping out again by losing to Ireland in Cardiff.
Irrespective of all that, the All Blacks are favourites to retain the Webb Ellis trophy for the third successive time. Imperious domination has always been New Zealand’s calling card: it is their self-appointed obligation to set a standard that leaves them as the international team to beat, year in and year out.
But under Hansen’s watch, they have pushed themselves into a new realm of consistency and success. And as world rugby seeks to broaden its sphere of influence, the All Blacks aura and brand remain the sport’s most recognisable brand and icon.
They’ve been masters at it since the beginnings of international organised sport. The strongest trait of rugby union is its tradition and the legacy and history of international contests dating back to the 1800s.
The social and historical roots of rugby union run to the core of the earth in those countries where the game falls somewhere between passion and religion.
Rugby union was up and running decades before the NBA and NFL were dreamed into being and even before England’s professional football league had taken a grip on the popular imagination.
And the All Blacks, through accident as much as design, were operating with an awareness of their own mystique and brand that has set them completely apart from other sporting entities, whether local or national.
The gravestone of Thomas Ellison reads: “One of the greatest rugby footballers New Zealand ever possessed.” The word ‘ever’ is pertinent in the inscription. Ellison, a lawyer and one of the first Maori to be called to the bar, died of tuberculosis in 1904.
He was gone a full year before the marauding 1905 tour of the old world countries by Dave Gallaher’s team, which gave the country its original team of invincible players and created, through the medium of cable message and breathless newspaper reports, the impression that there was something superhuman about the New Zealanders when it came to playing rugby football.
When Ellison died, rugby was still a brand new sport in a young country struggling to forge an identity. The first official game had taken place in 1870, between Nelson college and Nelson football club.
The rapidity with which the sport sunk and settled as a natural mode of creativity and expression of national pride was driven by men like Ellison. Even today, there is something singularly elsewhere about New Zealand, with 4,000 kilometres of ocean separating it from its neighbor and rival Australia and all of that Pacific water around it.
On the map of the globe, it looks and feels conspicuously removed from it all and once you are there, you then have the country’s vast beautiful interior to navigate: that internal remoteness.
Rugby sort of fell out of the sky as a gift to New Zealanders trying to figure out how to give both town and country a unifying focal point; the rugby team became that rock that made the world seem more local to them.
Just before the last Rugby World Cup, over 150,000 New Zealanders – around three percent of the population – considered themselves to be active rugby players. So the vast majority of the country does not play the game. Of that total, around 28,000 were adults over the age of 21. The elite are skimmed from the very top of that pool, culminating in the 31 All Blacks.
As of this July, 1,184 players wore All Blacks shirts in the series Tests and tours dating back to the first Test in 1882. It remains an exalted position.
“Rugby has put this country on the map,” Sir Graham Henry, told the Guardian’s Andy Bull before the last World Cup.
“The country earned respect from the rest of the world for three things: what we did in two World Wars and to a lesser extent what we did on the rugby field.”
The wars were foisted upon them but the New Zealanders responded: 100,000 men and women enlisted for service form 1914-18: 16,697 were killed.
When Chamberlain declared war on Germany in 1939, the short-wave radio reception in parliament buildings was so dismal that the politicians couldn’t hear what was said and had to wait for a coded message from London. Again, they enlisted in huge numbers. Showing up for wars in which they had no direct skin won the Kiwis admiration but Henry was right.
In the decades after the war, as the political world hardened into an East and West polemic, it would have been easy for everyone to forget about New Zealand. Rugby has prevented that. The winter teams and the parade of players who seemed to break a particular mould from Colin Meads to Zinzan Brooke to Carlos Spencer to Jonah Lomu to Christian Cullen to Richie McCaw, they turned up to win with players who stretched the limits of what seemed possible for their given positions.
For the 31 All Blacks named in the squad for Japan last week – three of whom come from the Barrett household in Pungarehu – making the squad is at once a career and an inheritance.
All of that knowledge fed into Hansen’s pointed observations about the rankings. Staying on top of the pile matters. The ranking system is an official acknowledgement of that: a testament to their winter-in- winter-out consistency and their winning record. It’s the pressure they live under. To have Wales – or, as it might have been, Ireland – coming into the tournament in Japan as the official number one wouldn’t have meant anything.
But it’s still rubbing New Zealand noses in it. For they come into this World Cup looking more vulnerable than usual. If they were at the end of a long season in their get-out-of-jail win against England last November and even more so on the transcendent night in Dublin when everything came together for the Irish, a degree of patchiness has followed them through their summer warm-up games.
The August defeat to Australia will nag them, as will the last-minute try they coughed up to Herschel Jantjies in Wellington to give South Africa just the fourth ever draw in the 98 games the two countries have played. The musical chairs at the top of the ranking system are just a further reminder to Hansen that this Japan will be a tournament of twists and tight margins.
In early August, New Zealand rugby lost Sir Brian Lochore, the chiselled forward captain who immersed himself in two of the countries great traditions – number eight broken play and sheep farming.
At Lochore’s funeral, the casket was painted black and bore the silver fern. Thousands of people turned up at the local pitch in Masterton to listen to tales of his eventful life.
Lochore hadn’t worn the black shirt since 1971 but the Herald ran a live blog of his funeral. Lochore was the real deal, one of the All Blacks elite, coach when New Zealand won the inaugural World Cup in 1987. It was he who reputedly coined the “better people make better All-Blacks” which has become central to the mantra they have followed through the Henry/Hansen era, radiating a steadfast humility.
Perhaps the best story about Lochore concerned his last appearance for New Zealand. He had already retired when the phone rang as he was finishing his lunch one Friday after a morning on the farm. Bob Duff had called; they were short for an international the following day. He packed a bag and then he scribbled a note to his wife Pam, who was out. ‘Gone to Wellington to play the Test,’ he wrote. ‘Ring you later’.
Everything stops for the All Blacks. It was true in New Zealand then and will be true when the latest vintage keep their country pulsing on the map of the world.