NZ All Blacks- Rugby's Mystique
A remote South Pacific island with a sheep population four times greater than humans has produced the world's most successful rugby union squads for over a century.
Nicknamed the “All Blacks” for the color of their uniform, New Zealand’s national team have been leaders in a speed and muscle sport that uses no pads, no helmets and no timeouts.
England, inventors and purveyors of rugby from their imperial days, have fallen to the All Blacks in 80% of their test matches since 1905; powerhouse France in 77% since 1906; neighboring rival Australia in 69% since 1903; nemesis South Africa in 59% since 1921.
The kiwis were even said to help kill the prospect of rugby over football as a preferred college sport in the U.S. A 1913 tour of California by the All Blacks resulted in a 51-3 thrashing of an All-American team in front of 10,000 spectators, prompting the press to pronounce that rugby is not America’s sport.
Unlike the soccer world cup which debuted in 1930, rugby tournaments were more fragmented and the game’s traditional rivalries concentrated among Great Britain’s home nations- England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland.
The quadrennial rugby world cup only got going in 1987 with 16 nation contenders. Still, New Zealand won 3 of the 8 championships to date, including the inaugural event.
Their lowest finish in the quest for the Webb Ellis Cup was a quarterfinals knockout by France in 2007, which triggered a 47-page report by the country’s rugby football union on the reason behind the failure.
It wasn’t just sponsorship at stake. Adidas’ 9 year, $200 Million contract with NZRFU banked on a 75% winning trajectory stemming from the All Blacks’ historical performance.
But it was also the national psyche that had to be assuaged. Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport, its spirit, its essence, and a source of international pride for a tiny nation sitting at the bottom of the planet.
Beyond superior coaching and a solid practice of game fundamentals, off-field hallmarks of the country’s rugby tradition include uncharacteristic humility, profound respect and strong cultural identity.
International matches are typically preceded by the team performing the “haka” (photo above), an indigenous Maori war dance intended to cower the enemy.
Two major annual battles are set to kick off in the world of contact sports, the Six Nations tournament in Europe and the Super Bowl in the U.S. But neither will include a team shrouded in the same mystique.
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