New Zealand rugby has something going for it

NEXT weekend, teams from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will begin battling it out in the knockout phase of the 2016 Super Rugby tournament.

From 12 teams in 1996, the tournament now has 18 teams: six from South Africa, five each from Australia and New Zealand, and one apiece from Argentina and Japan.

New Zealand’s overall population is just a shade over four million. Yet half the teams in the playoffs who play for honours will be from those two islands they call the shaky isles.

It is a remarkable phenomenon.

South Africa, with a population of 54 million, has three teams in the fray while Australia, with a touch over 24 million in its borders, has just one team in the running.

Last year, the final was an all-New Zealand affair, with the Otago Highlanders defeating the Wellington Hurricanes to take the trophy. It has been that way five times.

For the first five years of the tournament, teams from New Zealand topped; only then, did an Australian team win. It took until 2007 for a South African team, the Bulls from Pretoria, to win the tournament.

In the 20 years of Super Rugby, South African teams have taken the trophy home just thrice while Australian teams have won four times. The other 13 times, teams from tiny New Zealand have been triumphant.

Seven of those Kiwi wins have been by the Canterbury Crusaders, and three by the Auckland Blues, with the Waikato Chiefs winning twice and the Highlanders once.

How is it that this tiny nation can dominate in this sport, and not for a year or two, but over decades and decades?

There is a book titled Legacy: 15 lessons in leadership which tells part of the story, detailing the culture of the All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby team. All the national players are drawn from the super rugby teams; nobody who plays outside the country qualifies.

This book tells of the influence of Maori culture on the team and the players. It is a wonderful example of a nation of white people where the lessons of the first peoples still remain. This is the only case of a team from a white nation in any sport that does a war dance before the game inspired by its first peoples. It is the only white country that sings its national anthem in the language of its first peoples before it sings the same verses in English.

Legacy tells the story of how the New Zealand team learns to lead, how it stays ahead and how it cultivates the spirit of winning. It is a spirit that is followed in the five New Zealand franchises where the coaches are more often than not former national players.

As former All Blacks coach Graham Henry puts it in the book, the expectation is that the team will win every match, and if that expectation wasn’t there, then the team wouldn’t be half as successful.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from this little country that produces such magnificent teams year after year and plays the game as it should be played: with flamboyance and flair.