July 9, 2017

CUSTODIAL CREW (profanity alert):

Why the All Blacks are so great : What makes New Zealand's national rugby team the most dominant side in the history of sport? (XAN RICE, 7/07/17, New Statesman)

For New Zealanders, the magic is more in the hands than the feet, as demonstrated by flyhalf Beauden Barrett in the first Test against the Lions, when he scooped the ball up off the ground one-handed while being chased towards his own tryline.

And it is not only All Black backline players who are expected to have those skills. "When it comes to handling, backs everywhere [in all Test-playing nations] can do it well," Oliver said. "But with our forwards - that's where you see the big difference. You can never play with width unless all your players can catch and look up and pass."

They also need to be able to deal with pressure. The New Zealand public believes the All Blacks should win every game, which is why they seldom field a second-string team, even at the season's end in the autumn internationals in Europe. But at times, especially in World Cups, the weight of expectation has become too much.

"You either walk towards the pressure or fight it and play the victim, saying it's an impossible task to win all the time. Since 2004, we have walked towards that pressure, and used it as a positive thing," Oliver said.

That was the year Graham Henry took over as coach, and the start of a new era of dominance. Henry understood that he needed to step back and empower the players - an approach that his assistant Steve Hansen stuck with after taking over at the end of 2011. "It was all about removing the fear of a mistake: express yourself, trust your instincts and make a decision," Oliver said. "If you think it's on - go!" It's why Barrett attempted his audacious pick-up instead of diving on the ball, a safer option. He knew that if he messed up there would be no recrimination.

There was also a subtle change in the culture of the team. "What the All Blacks managed to do, especially since 2004, was to create a legacy, passing on the intergenerational lore. We talk about being 'custodians of the jersey'. You want to leave the jersey in a better place than where you found it," Oliver said.

Character matters. "There are two questions we ask when someone comes into the All Blacks squad. What are you prepared to sacrifice? And what are you going to give to the team?"

Posted by at July 9, 2017 7:50 AM

  

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