On the eve of the World Cup, GREGOR PAUL discovers that the famous black jersey has maintained its lure. But the class of 2011 must deliver the William Webb Ellis trophy to their rugby-mad public
For the first six months of 2011, the French club Racing Métro were convinced that Dan Carter was going to sign with them. They had offered the world’s best fly-half a three-year deal worth a staggering £937,000 ($1.5m) a season. Carter would have been the best-paid rugby player in the world; he could have retired at 32 and never had to work again. Yet he turned down the French side to accept a four-year deal to stay in New Zealand. He’ll be paid £466,000 a season by the New Zealand Rugby Union and by the end of his contract will have earned what he would have made in a year in Paris.
His decision was stunning proof that the lure of being an All Black is, if anything, increasing. The reason Carter couldn’t sign with Racing was the thought of being in Europe and watching the All Blacks from afar. It would have broken his heart. He found it hard enough to be away from home in 2009 when he was allowed to take a six-month sabbatical with French side Perpignan during the Super 14 season.
A die-hard Crusader, he ached whenever he watched TV and saw the red jerseys of his club side, Canterbury. “It would have been the same, if not another level, of homesickness, watching an All Black test,” said Carter the day he committed himself to rugby’s most iconic jersey until 2015.
For those of a certain age there is a tendency to glibly brand the current era as soulless; to believe that the modern All Black has no sense of history or loyalty and no concept of the legacy and its importance to the nation. It is easy to be fooled. Carter, after all, is a poster boy for an underwear firm, Ma’a Nonu once played with eyeliner on, and Ali Williams can’t seem to keep out of the tabloid social pages, willing to turn up to the opening of an envelope as long as a photographer is there.
The current side puts a modern twist on classic values
But while many of the current senior All Blacks give the superficial impression of being typical products of Generation Y, they are anything but. They simply put a modern twist on classic values. What drove legends such as Colin Meads, Wayne Shelford and Michael Jones still drives men such as Carter and his skipper, Richie McCaw. Probably more so—this current side has an astute understanding of the All Blacks legacy.
The financial riches of European club rugby are no match against the emotional rewards of being an All Black. Better probably than any of their predecessors, this generation is aware of the All Blacks’ freakishly good win ratio—since 2004 they have won 86% of their tests. Overall, the All Blacks have a 75% success rate and the likes of Carter and McCaw are inspired by the opportunity to enhance those incredible statistics.
That desire is partly about having the certainty in retirement that they achieved their potential; that they were part of something no amount of money could buy. But there is also an understanding
that they will be presented with commercial opportunities in
New Zealand long after they retire if they can become revered
If you are regarded as great, that stays with you forever
Carter already earns an estimated £310,000 a year in endorsements. McCaw pockets close to £517,000. As former fly-half Grant Fox says, it’s not just about the present. “If you are regarded as a great like Pinetree [former captain Colin Meads], then that stays with you forever. And in our society that has got currency. Currency is about kudos and standing.”
Fox should know. A member of the 1987 World Cup winning team, he is now an analyst for Sky TV and a regular speaker on the celebrity circuit. His former captain, Wayne Shelford, is the face of many companies despite playing his last test 20 years ago. Universally known as Buck, Shelford is a household name—known even by those who never saw him play.
Meads enjoys a similar status—when he speaks, New Zealand listens. NZ Rugby World magazine, the country’s iconic bible of the sport, recently published a list of the 50 most influential men in the national game. Meads, who retired 40 years ago, came in at number 15. His blurb read: “He’s an opinion former and speaks in a language that people understand and respect. Any All Black coach that falls offside with Meads can expect, by extension, to fall out with everyone in New Zealand older than 60. If Meads says something is so, then it is so.”
That is kudos and, although the ethnic make-up of New Zealand continues to diversify, with increasing numbers hailing from the Polynesian islands, the aura of the All Blacks only grows; their grip on the nation only tightens.
Even seasoned professionals can still be caught out by just how big a deal it is to be an All Black. Sonny Bill Williams was selected to play for the All Blacks on their Grand Slam tour of the UK in 2010. He was already a big star, having been the highest
profile player in the NRL—the Australasian professional rugby league competition.
Used to living in the public glare, Williams admitted by the end of the tour that he had struggled to deal with the level of interest that came with being an All Black. “It is such a big brand,” he said. “There are so many people, so many questions, but it is like anything—you get used to it. It has been surprising, though. With all the people talking about the All Blacks and myself, there is a lot of added pressure so you have got to perform every time. You don’t get as much exposure in league as you do with the All Blacks. You don’t get 20 people waiting outside the hotel for you.”
Dealing with public expectation is probably still the hardest part of being an All Black and World Cup years are when the scrutiny and desire reach desperation levels. The story of All Black failure at World Cups has become one of the more intriguing phenomena in world sport. The undisputed best team in the world for three years and 46 weeks, the All Blacks have developed an unwelcome habit of imploding on the biggest stage. They haven’t won the World Cup since 1987 and with the tournament being hosted by New Zealand this year, the pressure is going to
In 2008, a number of senior All Blacks signed three-year deals to stay in New Zealand. Their motivation was entirely about putting right what went wrong in 2007. Being so acutely aware of the brand they upheld, no one needed to be reminded of how much damage was caused when they crashed out in the quarter-final four years ago. The normally stoic fullback Mils Muliaina was inconsolable for 48 hours. His grief, he said, was mainly about the sense of loss, the realisation that after giving everything for so long they had come up horribly short. It was also about the fact he felt he had let the nation down and was dreading stepping on to New Zealand soil.
After previous World Cup failures, scrum-half Justin Marshall collected his luggage in Auckland to find handlers had scrawled “loser” all over it. John Hart, coach of the 1999 team, watched in horror as spectators spat on a racehorse he owned.
When the likes of McCaw, Carter, Brad Thorn, Williams, Nonu, Muliaina, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Sitiveni Sivivatu put pen to paper in 2008, they knew what pressures they would face in 2011. The All Blacks have spent the past 12 months planning for the World Cup, which runs from 9 September to 23 October. They have confronted their situation and decided fear of losing would be self-fulfilling.
We wondered, if we had been stronger mentally, whether we would have knocked over
“Straight after the Cardiff game in 2007, I thought: ‘Why can’t we go back?’,” says coach Graham Henry. “We made a decision not to—the senior players and coaches. We wondered, if we had
been stronger mentally, whether we would have knocked over the French. It’s always a biggie—being able to perform under
intense pressure and doing it when things you don’t expect to happen, happen.”
If his side can rise to the occasion over the six-week tournament rather than wilt under the intense expectation of a nation still coming to terms with last year’s earthquake in Christchurch, then victory would not only exorcise some demons, it would double, possibly even triple the currency of being an All Black.
Gregor Paul is the Rugby Correspondent for the New Zealand Sunday Herald