Secrets of the All Blacks not all that secret, Spiro Zavos

The Jersey: The Secrets Behind the World’s Most Successful Team
Peter Bills
Pan Macmillan, $38.00,
ISBN 9781509856688

Murdoch: The All Black Who Never Returned
Ron Palenski
Upstart Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988516127

The cultural historian E H McCormick once noted that the only genuine masterpiece created in New Zealand was the Māori carved war canoe. The argument can be made that the national men’s rugby team, the All Blacks, can be added to McCormick’s list.

The minutes of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) in the early 1900s reveal that the administrators were concerned about the issue of who constituted a New Zealander. The initial argument was that only native-born players should be eligible to represent the country. But this argument was rejected for an inclusionist approach that accepted players who had come to the colony as children. This ruling opened the way for Dave Gallaher, who was born in Northern Ireland, to be selected as the wing-forward in the first New Zealand Test side that played Australia in 1903. On the wing was Opie Asher, a Māori. 

From the beginnings of the All Blacks project, then, the national rugby team (with the exception of tours to South Africa up to 1976) has been made successful, and sometimes unbeatable, through the diversity of its players. This is a fundamental difference between the All Blacks and its major opponents, the national rugby sides of England, South Africa and Australia. The first All Black international star was George Nepia, a Māori teenager who played every game on the unbeaten All Blacks tour of Britain in 1924/25. Seventy years later, an even more famous international star was Jonah Lomu, a thunderous New Zealand-born winger with a Tongan background. The team’s all black colours, with the silver fern on the chest, were devised by Tom Ellison, a Māori lawyer, a celebrated player and thinker about rugby, who devised the five-eighths system.

On the pillars of respect for diversity, an understanding that rugby tactics can be systemised, and an obsession with winning, the All Blacks have become the most successful international side in rugby history. The All Blacks have won three of the eight Rugby World Cup tournaments, with successive wins in 2011 and 2015. The American journalist Sam Walker studied successful sports teams for over a decade before publishing his list of the 16 greatest teams in sports history. The New Zealand All Blacks (1986-1990) are on that list. Walker noted, that “some Americans still believe the Yankees are the greatest team in history and I tell them, ‘No! Look at this rugby team (the All Blacks), they’ve won 80 per cent of games since 1888. I mean, c’mon!’ ”

The Jersey: The Secrets Behind the World’s Most Successful Team, a new book by the British sports journalist Peter Bills, a veteran of more than 40 years of reporting international rugby and the author of 20 books on sporting topics, sets out to answer the question posed by the remarkable success of the All Blacks project: how did a country of just 4.8 million people conquer the world?

Bills was given permission by the NZRFU to have “exclusive access to all the key figures in New Zealand rugby … to understand the secrets behind the All Blacks’ success.” He talked to over 90 people in New Zealand and around the world, “from Steve Hansen to Beauden Barrett, Richie McCaw to the late Sir Colin Meads.” His bizarre and limited bibliography, however, indicates that these interviews have not been backed up by any real knowledge about the history of New Zealand, or the history of the rugby game. He repeats the William Webb Ellis myth, for example. He also believes the theory that a preponderance of farmers is behind the success of successive All Blacks forward packs. This theory has been totally discredited by the sports historian Greg Ryan. Bills only mentions, in passing, the seminal text of New Zealand rugby, The Complete Rugby Footballer in the New Zealand System written by Billy Stead and Dave Gallaher (who mainly provided the photographs and diagrams) in a matter of weeks at the end of the All Blacks 1905-6 tour of Britain and France. This omission by Bills compromises his research. The Stead-Gallaher tome is the Bible of the All Blacks project. No author can understand the All Blacks and their historic record of success without understanding this fact. Bills is also unaware of the famous passage in John Mulgan’s Report on Experience, in which the real secrets of New Zealand rugby are analysed. 

Bills organises his investigation into 16 chapters, with themes like “The Pioneers’ DNA” and “The Haka: An Expression of Identity”, through to “Coaches: The Wise Men” and “The Jersey”. Bills teases out implications from these topics by linking them to discussions with former and current stars, coaches and officials, to get to some understanding of the All Blacks’ secret formulae. 

What are these secrets that Bills has uncovered through his five-year search? Mainly a collection of clichés and truisms, unfortunately:

Teamwork, resilience, an ability to think and operate in adversity, to solve difficulties without recourse to others. To take a risk. Here are the first clues to what has made New Zealanders supreme in the great game of rugby union.

The New Zealand founding culture represents “an unwillingness to accept defeat, able to dig deep and stay calm in adversity … A warrior people, a tougher people.” “When you play for New Zealand, you don’t play for a team, but a nation.” 

Jerome Kaino: “For me the success of our All Blacks starts a lot earlier than at a school’s First XV. I think even earlier than Under 12s.” Andy Haden: “Fear of failure has always been there. But it is as much a hunger for success.” Grant Fox: “Coaching is part of our success.” Dan Carter: “A big part of the way the All Blacks play is to keep things simple.” “Nothing is allowed to come between New Zealand and winning.” 

There are revealed many more “secrets” like this that are clearly not secrets. Bills has written an entertaining survey of the All Blacks project that will be of more interest to readers outside of New Zealand than those living here. He has not cracked the code. As the Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer told him about New Zealanders and their rugby secrets: “They are the most insular and secretive rugby nation in the world.”

Like many British rugby writers past and present (Stephen Jones is an obvious example), Bills accepts without any real evidence that the All Blacks have an “obsession with winning at rugby” that has led the team across “the line that divides industry and effort from wanton violence on the field”. This is nonsense. The basis of the All Blacks game, its true obsession, has always been scoring tries to win games, not breaking the jaws of opponents. The first fullback to score a try in a Test was Billy Wallace. It was not until 30 years after Wellington’s “Carbine” turned the fullback role from custodian to attacker that a Home Union fullback, Vivian Jenkins, later a famous rugby journalist, scored a try for Wales. 

In his chapter “At All Costs”, Bills mentions the Murdoch affair in support of his All Blacks “wanton violence” theory. There is a timely rejection of this nonsense in Ron Palenski’s provocative and deeply-researched new book, Murdoch: The All Black Who Never Returned. New Zealand’s most authoritative rugby historian details an infamous stitch-up of an All Black “bad man”, Keith Murdoch. In the epilogue to his book, Palenski relates how the British rugby media collaborated with the secretary of the Home Unions Tours Committee and a former chairman of the England selectors, Albert Eustace, and John Tallent, the chairman of the Four Home Unions Tours Committee, to destroy Murdoch: 

This is more than just a story of Keith Murdoch, whatever he did and however harshly he was treated. The events … laid bare not just British rugby’s attitude towards Murdoch if not the All Blacks as a whole, but the grubbier methods of a newspaper industry in which … newspapers fiercely battled one another for sales.

Palenski’s exposure of the British rugby establishment and media is a tour de force of new research and sharp analysis. It is balanced with equally tough reappraisals of the forelock-tugging tendencies of New Zealand rugby officials and respected journalists like T P McLean. In a fascinating foreword, Ian Kirkpatrick, the captain of the 1972-73 team, suggests that the Murdoch affair remains “the greatest regret of my rugby career … I never had any issues with him on or off the field.” It is hardly surprising, given its detailed revisionism of the accepted British version of Murdoch, that Palenski’s book has been subjected to a vicious review by Mark Reason, the son of the late John Reason, a doyen of the British rugby media. According to Mark Reason, when Murdoch was introduced to his father, he “pulled his hand away as if it had been stung: ‘I don’t talk to press men,’ he grunted. ‘F… ya.’ ” We are supposed to take from this understandable reaction by Murdoch that he was somehow an uncontrollable monster.

For doing to the British rugby media and officials what the All Blacks have done to British teams for over 100 years, I rate Palenski’s Murdoch the rugby book of the year.

Spiro Zavos is a journalist and author who writes on politics and sport.

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