The All Blacks’ secret? Never stand still or you get overtaken
Side have won 83 of their past 93 Tests thanks to their relentless pursuit of innovation
The All Blacks’ frontrow practise the scrum during training ahead of their Test game against England. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Everyone wants to know the All Blacks’ secret. How is it, exactly, they have won 83 of 93 Tests under their head coach, Steve Hansen, and held the mantle of the world’s number one ranked team for nine consecutive years?
To put that dominance into perspective, since 2012 the next best record in world rugby is held by England, who the All Blacks face on Saturday at Twickenham, with a 69 per cent win ratio (54 out of 78) and 50 million more residents than New Zealand. Many myths and legends shroud the All Blacks’ success but one element we can pinpoint is their relentless pursuit of innovation. Never, ever, stand still, or you will be overtaken.
Hansen, promoted to the lead role after the 2011 World Cup, has certainly demonstrated this dedication to continually innovate while manufacturing his 89.2 per cent win rate with the All Blacks. “One of the greatest things you can do in life and in sport is be a faster learner than someone else; adapt and adjust in the moment and then afterwards reflect and learn,” Hansen says with typical simplicity.
For the All Blacks this way of being sprang from The Originals; for New Zealand it is inherent in their roots. In 1905, the first All Blacks team to tour outside Australasia took Europe by storm, winning 34 of their 35 games, outscoring their opponents by 920 points. Their sole, highly controversial, 3-0 defeat came at Cardiff Arms Park against Wales who had scouted the All Blacks and adopted the wing-forward role that their captain, Dave Gallaher, devised on the boat journey to Europe. Gallaher’s team were beaten by their own tactic, and vowed from then on to always evolve the game.
You’re never going to get the answers if you don’t test them. For Hansen, that philosophy is rooted in New Zealand’s heritage, a country founded on the can-do attitude of building motors, fences, houses, from anything close at hand. “New Zealanders are pioneer people and particularly back in those days we were isolated,” Hansen says. “You didn’t have aeroplanes; boats took a long time to get anywhere and farmers were a long way from help if they needed it. They had to be innovative, good decision-makers and do things for themselves.”
Inevitably, this mentality filtered down through sport and rugby. The All Blacks, of course, do not always get it right. Today they evolve through trial and error – do not throw the baby out with the bath water as their head coach likes to say. Equally as important are the things Hansen does not say; he has not delivered a pre-match team talk since leaving Wales in 2004 and, in the age of modern technology, the All Blacks are constantly trying new things; pushing different pressure points.
In the most recent Rugby Championship, for instance, they would barely kick to examine ball in hand abilities. The next week they then kicked more to test defence. They do not seek silver bullets; rather often settle for incremental gains. But they also appreciate when experiments do not come off, they hear about it.
“If you watch rugby now everyone is basically doing the same thing but within that similar blueprint you’ve got to have the imagination and willingness to fail or be criticised for not performing to the level you want to. Then you can find something. You’re never going to get answers if you don’t test them.”
The criticism Hansen notes came during the 2015 World Cup pool games, after which the All Blacks claimed their third Webb Ellis crown and second in succession. In the group stages they battled past Argentina and were underwhelming against Tonga, Georgia and Namibia. Given previous World Cup jitters, and a certain quarter-final looming against France in Cardiff, those on the ground and at home grew twitchy, forcing Hansen to stress they were holding something back.
There are areas to be innovative and no one knows what you’re doing if you keep it to yourself. In fact, Hansen and his management instigated heavy training workloads to the point the team played fatigued. Why? To taper like a marathon runner for the knockout stage. “What we did in that tournament was reasonably innovative in how we prepared. When we needed to we went to the model that would work for us. That only happened because of what we did before.”
All professional rugby teams have heightened paranoia. How much do you show; against whom and when? Let the genie out of the bottle – see the blindside scrum switch between Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane in the final Bledisloe Cup Test for example – and it may not work again.
“Do you get to keep it for long?” Hansen says. “No, because everyone else will see it and find ways to stop it or copy it. But there are many other ways to be innovative in how you train, set up your week, lead your people, how you expect your people to lead back and that isn’t analysed. Those are areas you can be innovative and no one knows what you’re doing if you keep it to yourself.”
Never switch off, never get comfortable, never stop innovating. The last part is, after all, inspired by legacy and heritage. “If you think you’ve arrived you probably have and it’ll be the end of the destination. If you keep striving to be better then you’re going to search for ways to do that.”