In just over a week, teams from the north descend upon southern shores and there are many questions being asked. Can the Argentinians regain their form of 2015? Can Eddie Jones get his England ship back on course in South Africa?
There will also be ongoing debate about the All Blacks as they continue their quest to achieve the inconceivable – winning three World Cups in a row. There are many inside and outside New Zealand rugby who are asking how do they evolve a winning culture that conquers new challenges, and how can they hope to maintain their stunning win rate. A new documentary series from Amazon looks to shine the light behind the Black screen and answer these questions.
All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks is Amazon’s latest venture in the sports documentary world with previous versions allowing viewers to go behind the scenes with some of the biggest names in the NFL, including the Dallas Cowboys.
Many fans will be aware of the multitude of books, articles, podcasts and videos that aim to give some insight into what makes the All Blacks – the most successful professional sports team anywhere in the world – so special.
But when The Roar had a one-on-one chat with New Zealand vice-captain Ben Smith ahead of the documentary launch, it became clear that no matter how many books you read, understanding that successful culture is not an academic exercise and it’s certainly not one that can be easily recreated elsewhere.
While rugby fans the world over have seen the tangible results of this culture on the field (over 77 per cent win rate, three World Cups, ten Tri-Nations and five Rugby Championships), Smith believes that it all starts when you’re very young.
“You feel part of it when you’re growing up,” he says when asked about where the culture comes from.
For him, the values of humility, respect and a simple hard working ethic of wanting to “just get on with it” are present even in schoolboy rugby and stay front of mind all the way to the very top.
(AFP PHOTO / MARTY MELVILLE)
The 65-cap veteran feels those qualities are common throughout New Zealand in general, not just within rugby. It would be easy to generalise and stereotype here, but if those qualities that the All Blacks rely upon so heavily are prevalent as part of the nation’s broader culture, then it helps to understand how they are so well embedded in the country’s elite sporting team.
The All Blacks don’t have to try to instil new values into their players. Instead, they can focus on strengthening those values that already exist and binding those players with similar values together into a strong unit.
Smith gives further evidence that the strong culture comes from outside the organisation when talking about the commitment and dedication of key stakeholders at all levels of the game, especially grassroots.
“It’s awesome to be part of grassroots rugby in New Zealand,” he says, going on to reveal he and others are exposed to “coaches who want to get better and better” themselves.
This sincere desire by coaches at all levels to improve themselves as well as their players is indicative of a system always thinking about what it can give back to others. The concept that the team is bigger than any individual is often heralded as a core All Blacks value that is has become cliched, but it’s clearly and genuinely held dear by players and support staff from all levels of rugby in New Zealand.
There seems to be an acceptance by the majority that their role goes beyond just their specific job description. Whether it’s players or coaches or physios, there is a desire to be a role model as well as being great at the job itself. Having these positive role models around him from such a young age was critical, says Smith.
In the documentary, there is some unique footage of Smith with his young family. When asked what he thinks are the two most important learnings he’s taken from the All Blacks that he will look to teach his own kids, he takes his time to gather his thoughts before coming up with two very telling answers.
“Becoming part of the All Blacks takes a lot of hard work and takes time,” says Smith.
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
He knows this first hand having had to fight hard since his debut in 2009 to make his 65 appearances. Both through competition for places and injury Smith has had to prove himself again and again and has done so with great success. It’s this understanding that making it to the All Blacks is both very hard work in the first place and nowhere near the end of the toil that helps keep players hungry and humble.
His second answer gives a glimpse into a crucial part of the puzzle.
“Staying ahead of the game is so important.” In this we see how having an effective culture is one thing, but having the awareness and confidence to evolve it is what takes a side to a different level.
Achieving a successful culture in any organisation is hard and takes time. But to then have the comfort to start challenging it once it’s established and delivering results is brave.
It’s something that many rugby nations struggle with – they go through periods of success but then the inevitable happens and the things that were working aren’t working any longer. Maybe the opposition have figured you out or your key players are past their peak.
Whatever the reason, the reliance on one approach without the ability and permission to evolve that approach leaves many teams having to reminisce about that great 12 months rather than that dominant decade.
Of course, the All Blacks’ domination isn’t all down to culture. Success breeds success. The past achievements of the All Blacks have helped the current iteration enormously by allowing them to capitalise financially on a popular brand and reinvest in their sport wisely. It also helps that there are fewer major sports competing for attention in New Zealand compared to crowded markets such as Australia.
Yes, many coaches are committed to becoming better for their players at all ages but it certainly helps that the New Zealand Rugby Union invested almost $30 million into grassroots rugby in 2017.
Rugby Videos See more »
While there have been notable times when the All Blacks have not lived up to their cultural ambitions both in terms of on-field performance and off-field behaviour, no-one is claiming that the All Blacks as individuals or as an organisation are perfect.
As Smith says towards the end of our discussion, “You have to keep trying different things”.
Yes, culture is important to the All Blacks, but just as important is the knowledge that ongoing success comes from continually trying to get better, always asking questions and striving to be ahead of the game.
It’s clear that the All Blacks have something special, but its uniqueness is not that they’ve created an all-conquering culture. It’s that they’ve realised how to leverage a set of values that already in wider New Zealand and have learnt to use it as a foundation on which to build a very successful organisation.
All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks is available on Amazon Prime from June 1.