Sunday 24 March 2019

How the Springboks started All Blacks' march to the world summit

Heyneke Meyer has acknowledged that New Zealand are the greatest team of all time
Heyneke Meyer has acknowledged that New Zealand are the greatest team of all time

Daniel Schofield

New Zealand's stated goal of becoming "the most dominant team in the history of the world" is within reach. Heyneke Meyer, the head coach of South Africa - the All Blacks' semi-final opponents on Saturday - already acknowledges that they are the greatest team of all time; two more victories would confirm that assessment.

The most significant result in the establishment of this All Black hegemony came not in the 2011 World Cup triumph; nor the extraordinary 19-point comeback against Ireland or any other win. Instead it came in 2004 following a comprehensive defeat by South Africa that transformed the All Blacks' culture. Team mantras, which remain guiding principles, of "being an All Black 24/7", "better people make better All Blacks" and "leave the jersey in a better place" all sprang from a 40-26 loss in Johannesburg.

"It was a turning point, no doubt about it," said Nick Evans, the Harlequins fly-half who was a replacement that day. Aaron Mauger, the Leicester head coach who also played in that game, said: "The All Blacks are still benefiting from the foundations that were put in place back then."

The defeat was bad enough, but what followed was worse. Senior players, led by Carlos Spencer and Justin Marshall, organised a court session. Fines were administered for offences real or imagined. Spirits started flowing. Things got very messy. "It got way out of hand," Marshall admitted.

A member of the management team consumed so much that he thought he was going to die. It was reported that All Blacks strewn over the team hotel had to be rolled into the recovery position by their South Africa counterparts. "It was the norm at that time," Evans said.

"There was still the amateur ethos. What made it worse was that we had a terrible campaign. Afterwards, it was Wayne Smith who said, 'I don't want to be involved with the All Blacks if it is going to be like this.'"

Upon returning to Auckland, a senior cabal of coaches and players came together in Auckland for a meeting that would last three days. "There was a big hole in the culture: you had the coach and captain, but then it seemed everyone else was there to just play," Richie McCaw said recently. "We wanted more people taking ownership of the team, and in that regard it was a pretty important meeting."

Some decisions were instantly reached. Court sessions, binge drinking and bringing women back to the hotel were out of bounds. Graham Henry, who had taken charge only at the start of the year, jettisoned Spencer and Marshall.

Bigger transformations were also afoot. Going against all his authoritarian instincts, Henry ceded significant control to a leadership group of 10 players. "If there's one single outstanding and innovative element to what he's done with us, it's the ownership he's encouraged each player to have over what we're doing as a group," McCaw wrote in his autobiography.

Mauger was part of that leadership group, which met every Sunday for six weeks to agree upon the standards that became the All Blacks' defining principles. "It required a significant mind-shift around our professionalism and the responsibility of being an All Black," Mauger said.

"When rugby went professional there were still five or six areas of behaviour that were not very professional. The All Blacks coaching group were the first side to grasp that concept and ensure the players brought into it and enforced it. If I was to sum up in three words it would be 'understand the privilege'."

There was also the strong feeling in 2004 that the playing group was losing its connection to its history and Maori identity. Hence a new haka, Kapa o Pango, was commissioned to complement the traditional Ka Mate. Key to many of these initiatives was Gilbert Enoka, the mental skills coach, whom Mauger describes as "the glue, the everything" of the All Blacks.

"When I came back in 2005, it was like a whole new team," Evans said.

That is not to say that everyone who pulled on the silver fern was transformed into a teetotal angel. Cory Jane and Israel Dagg were caught drinking 72 hours before the 2011 World Cup quarter-final. The difference is in how transgressions are dealt with. "People still make mistakes," Evans said. "If you fix things off the field by making the culture and the environment better then that relates to better results on the pitch."

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