For the last 16 years, New Zealand has been winning the annual Bledisloe Cup rugby union competition against Australia, with 2002 being the last time they lost. It is a symbol of rugby supremacy, and for the two countries involved the next best after the World Cup itself.
Over the last few years, every time the games approach, the Australian media hype up the chances of their national team and for the uninitiated, it would appear to be some kind of equal contest. But in the end, New Zealand always runs away with the trophy, though some games can indeed be close.
Last year, for example, New Zealand came to Sydney for the first game as usual. By half-time, despite predictions of a close game being in the offing, New Zealand was ahead 40-6. The game ended in a 54-34 win to the All Blacks.
The following week, surprisingly, Australia was well-placed to win the game until the last few minutes, having scored three tries at the beginning of the game before New Zealand could even get one. But with about five minutes left, and trailing 28-29, New Zealand got a try and won 35-28.
There is a generally a third game most years, more of a means of raising money as it is played in some third country – Japan, or Hong Kong, for example. Australia won that third fixture last year, but by then the Cup had already been retained by the Kiwis.
This year, New Zealand won the first two games by resounding margins – 38-13 and 40-12. The third game will be in October.
Every time Australia loses, the local media advance various reasons: a lack of fitness, inability to do well in the set-pieces, loose kicking, missed tackles, and so on.
The one thing they never seem to understand is that it is the All Blacks’ superior communication skills — which comes from the culture they have developed as their own — that makes them better players overall, gives them the mental edge and enables them to keep winning.
That culture has not come on its own. From 2004 onwards, the Kiwis have been working on it, after a 40-26 loss to South Africa. Senior players were distraught at the time, with one, Malili Muliaina, even saying that he would like to quit as he was not enjoying it.
The coaches of that time — Graham Henry and Wayne Smith — along with Gilbert Enoka, who is still with the team and serves as some kind of father figure and guide, have helped the players devise a system where they recognise each others’ abilities, respect each other and play for each other.
The players have learnt to take responsibility for themselves and, indeed, from the Thursday in a week when there is a game on Saturday, the players are on their own. The leaders act to formulate a game plan based on what they have discussed with the coaches earlier in the week and out on the field it is the players’ call.
You never see the head coach anywhere near the players during the game. He is up there in his box. The players take decisions and they run the show. This has led to remarkable results; while the All Blacks have always been quite successful, since 2004, they have been even more successful than earlier.
Right now, they have a winning percentage of something in the mid-80s, which is by far the best by any team in the world in any sport in the history of sport.
Their culture is all based on the culture of the Maoris, the warrior tribes who were the first inhabitants of New Zealand. In what is a truly remarkable practice, New Zealanders sing their national anthem first in Maori, and then in English. And before every game, the All Blacks perform a haka, a Maori challenge. They even have their own distinctive haka which has been devised by them along with Maori writers.
The old saying goes that the strength of the pack is the wolf and conversely the strength of wolf is the pack. The All Blacks have standards which they have accepted and thus they are enforced by the players themselves. This culture keeps them strong, it helps them when they debrief, it helps to forgive the errors of fellow players, and it helps when they analyse a game after it is over.
There is a lot on the shoulders of a group which is mostly in their mid- and late-20s, with a few being on the other side of 30. Since they are bound by a common fate — they are a massive financial asset to the country and countries where the sport is popular pay big money to have the All Blacks play there — they have to maintain standards and keep winning, playing attractive rugby.
I have been watching them since 1995, when I saw them play in the World Cup that year. The fast, free-flowing game was beautiful to watch and their skills were out of this world. That was the year when the late Jonah Lomu made the tournament all his own, especially the quarter-final against England when he scored four tries and ran right through Mike Catt en route to one of his tries.
But there were ups and downs until the team got together with the coaching staff in 2004 and started formulating the means whereby they would strengthen their beliefs in their own abilities and learn to trust each other. Since 2011, when they won their second World Cup, they have gone from strength to strength, with only the occasional loss.
When will Australia realise that it is not merely a better team that is beating them time and again? The ad hoc methods adopted in Australia do not amount to a system and will never forge anything like the culture which the All Blacks have built for themselves.
What’s more, the same structure and methods have been adopted by all five teams from New Zealand that take part in the premier rugby tournament in the region, Super Rugby. Thus, all players in the senior game learn this culture and, as a result, if they are called up for national duty, it does not take much tuning to fit in with the established All Blacks.
At times, players do not fit in. A case in point is Zac Guildford, a talented winger, who had problems with alcohol. He played 23 Tests between 2008 and 2013 but was dropped after that due to frequent disciplinary problems.