TRYING to get inside the mind of an All Black with the constraints of professional sport in the 21st century is no more achievable than beating them on the park.
Sure, they are polite and approachable, but remain well-paid elite sportsmen, fearful of an ever-growing media hungry to turn tit-bits into news that makes headlines, so tend to keep real thoughts to themselves.
So, to have lunch with Wayne Smith, who conducted many New Zealand teams through the 1980s as a stand-off, and returned as head coach and then assistant in an ultimately successful pursuit of the World Cup, represents something of a golden opportunity.
New Zealand are in a class of their own as a global sports brand and yet they come from two small islands in the Pacific Ocean, dwarfed by their neighbour Australia and with a million fewer people than Scotland. But they found something that they were good at and since ‘The Originals’ toured the Northern Hemisphere 107 years ago, captained by Irishman Dave Kelleher, they have gripped their place in world sport by staying ahead of the pack.
The big question is how? Why are they so good? So they have a mix of Polynesian genetics that suits a game of strength, but the team that runs out at Murrayfield tomorrow will have many a Kiwi of white European descent. So are they all born rugby players, with innate skills passed through the genes?
If you were to read the books by Malcolm Gladwell (‘Outliers’) or Matthew Syed (‘Bounce’), you might be persuaded that sporting prowess is not innate at all, but comes from a heady mix of work ethic, drive, opportunities, often random, and over 10,000 hours of ever-improving, ever-challenging practice.
So, should that not provide succour to us, the idea that New Zealanders are not born rugby stars but are moulded into them by their environment? Smith agrees with that and says it should, but then goes on to paint a colourful picture of rugby in New Zealand that reveals exactly why they are so far ahead.
One of the leading coaches of his generation, Smith is a sharp, intelligent thinker, articulate and with a technical nous few can reach; the tactical brains, many believe, behind last year’s World Cup triumph. He helped to turn the Canterbury Crusaders into a dominant force and, after 12 years and 120 matches with the All Blacks, broken only by a brief stint in the English Premiership with Northampton, stepped off the World Cup cloud to return to his home province, the Chiefs, this year and duly led them to the new Super Rugby title. He turned down an offer from England chief Stuart Lancaster to become his backs coach but does not completely rule out a return to Test rugby.
Yet he remains a down-to-earth, engaging character, never happier than when discussing the detail of rugby. The Chiefs allow him to travel during the off-season and recently he pitched up in Scotland at the invitation of the SRU’s Director of Performance Rugby, Kiwi Graham Lowe, and friend Gregor Townsend. He spent time with the Glasgow and Edinburgh coaching teams and SRU age-grade and academy coaches, and held workshops with several hundred club, youth and schools coaches.
Typically to the point, he says he cannot fathom why Scottish rugby cut their professional teams from four to two, and insists finding money for a third team holds the key to Scottish rugby’s revival. What he sees in Scotland, he insists, are as talented a crop of coaches as he knows in New Zealand, with the same commitment, understanding of the game and rugby intelligence as any back home.
“That is not your problem here,” he says. “The problem is that Scottish rugby doesn’t have the development opportunities for young players to come through that we have in New Zealand. That’s the big difference.”
When the likes of Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter take to Murrayfield tomorrow many will be given to sit back and admire, and view them and their team-mates as simply world-class, almost untouchable talents, and believe that is the big difference.
But Smith shakes his head. As much as he believes that pair to be among the best players and role models he has coached, Smith insists that they are products of a system, fuelled by a passionate rugby public, that keeps ambition and desire to improve at its heart. He illustrates this by comparing rugby in New Zealand to 40 years ago, when he came through the system.
“It’s a totally different landscape to when I played,” he explains. “I went to school in Putaruru, a little town of about 4,500, with a huge rugby hinterland, a bit like a Borders town. The high school had a strong 1st XV. I played in 1974 and we were probably in the top ten in the country, and back then you went to school where you were born and brought up.
“But, now, if you want to make it in rugby, unfortunately, you have to go to one of the big schools, like St Kentigerns in Auckland, Auckland Grammar, Hamilton Boys High or Otago Boys High.
“They are not all private schools, but they have all targeted sport, and rugby in particular, as a key part of their education programme. So a certain number of their teachers will always be ambitious rugby coaches, some have sports psychologists on the staff to deal with multiple sports and teams, a strength and conditioning trainer on staff, and if you’re looking for the secret to the success in New Zealand rugby you don’t need to look further than our schools. They churn out fantastic rugby players, great athletes who are also well-coached and have pretty good game understanding.”
We accept that New Zealand boasts a culture wrapped around sport and rugby in particular, and has far more youngsters growing up in a culture of rugby than exists here. But the key for me is that it is about more than merely numbers. We have as many leading independent schools but, typical of a country where sport is rarely seen for the widespread benefits that it brings to society, they have struggled to give sporting achievement the same high-level support they have to other subjects.
Over the past 20 years we have watched many leading rugby schools drop 1st XVs altogether, skilled teachers walk away from extra-curricular sport and while state schools now opt out of the Scottish Schools Cup, many – not all, but too many - independent schools only take rugby seriously when it comes around.
So, while teenage rugby players in New Zealand are moving into more professional rugby environments, young Scots struggle with varying levels of competition. Many then emerge from school still with poor skills and lack game understanding and the ability to make the right decisions more often than not, but find themselves in a pro or national team because they have physical strength, size or a particularly well-developed skill that carried them through.
Smith continues: “That’s where a lot of work needs to be done. As an All Black coach you only have the All Blacks for a small part of the year so the real All Blacks coaches are the school, club, provincial and Super Rugby coaches because they are the ones spending most time with the players who come through to become All Blacks. I’ve had four coaching courses since I came here with about 100 club and community coaches in Edinburgh, 90 in Glasgow, and I was really impressed with the quality of them, their passion for it and the questions that they asked, so there is a lot of potential there but what kind of system are they working in?”
We debate the merits of the Scottish structure and the reality of striving to improve with a small population base, lack of finance and widespread community support. Smith takes some of it on board, but then returns to the matter of Scottish rugby relying on just two teams, Edinburgh and Glasgow, to develop its professional talent as the full stop that underlines his argument, which is essentially that Scottish rugby will only slip further behind the leading world rugby nations so long as that remains the case.
“You have to be able to accelerate the learning of players when they come out of school. In New Zealand we have 14 semi-professional provincial teams and then five Super Rugby teams so almost all of the under-20 New Zealand team go straight into Super Rugby.
“Our under-20s are involved with their provinces or in Super Rugby at 18 or 19, training at a high level and playing games at a good level, and that’s where they accelerate their learning.
“How many of your under-20s will step into in a proper professional team environment, and actually play? [Only Stuart Hogg and Duncan Weir of the 2010-11 squad are being exposed to pro rugby regularly]. We had three of last year’s Junior World Cup-winning side at the Chiefs this year picked for the Irish Test series in June. Two, Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick, are here on tour, along with another under-20 cap Beauden Barrett.”
We have Hogg and might have had Weir had injury not intervened, but, in truth, they are the exception rather than the rule of boys who have been given pro team exposure. The SRU state unequivocally that they would dearly love to set up a third team, but just don’t have the money.
“Private investment,” says Smith. “Australia didn’t have the money but let private investors set up Melbourne Rebels, and that team is allowing more young Australians to develop more quickly and stay in touch.
“Surely there’s opportunity in Scotland to follow that. It is a must. There is some very clear thinking among your coaches here; they know what has to be done. But rugby unions don’t like private investment because they don’t want to ‘lose the game’ or ‘lose the team’ as they see it, which is rubbish. Scotland needs a third team, clearly.
“You don’t have a lot of players so if you’re not developing what you do have it’s going to be hard to keep pace with what’s happening in the other countries in the top ten, never mind New Zealand.”
Smith reins back a little, stressing that he does not wish to come across as someone with the cures for Scottish rugby ills, accepting that New Zealand has had its struggles with club rugby and funding too. For all the similarities between the nations, and historical links with Scots who created many New Zealand settlements – his own family hail from “Peeterheed” - there are many differences.
We will witness the best of Scotland’s rugby community at Murrayfield tomorrow, the atmosphere generated by a 67,000 support, behind 23 young men straining every sinew and laying bodies on the line to avoid a repeat of the 46-point drubbing two years ago, and show their pride is not restricted to the Saltire emblazoned across the new jersey.
Smith relaxes and recalls Murrayfield on match day, specifically a November day in 1983 when he was New Zealand’s stand-off and thought a first Scotland victory was about to happen. The sense of foreboding began before he even reached the ground.
“That day was unique,” he says, shaking his head. “I will never forget it. We had a team talk and then got on the bus to go to Murrayfield, and we’re heading down Princes Street when suddenly the manager says ‘Where’s Robbie Deans?’ There was no sign of our starting full-back.
“He’d run up to his room for his boots and when he came back down the bus had gone. We were doing about a ten-point turn in Princes Street and heading back to get him, when he went by in a taxi. So we turned again, got to Murrayfield and headed into the ground to get changed. But Robbie wasn’t there. They wouldn’t let Robbie in the ground because they wouldn’t believe this guy arriving in a taxi was playing!
“It took a while. Robbie is quite a tough character and he handled it fine [he kicked 13 of New Zealand’s 25 points], but it was unsettling for the rest of us wondering where he was and if we’d have to change the team.
“And we were lucky to draw the game. They scored late on to tie it 25-25 [Jim Pollock try] and I stood there praying that Peter Dods would not convert it. It was a difficult kick but couldn’t believe it when the ball went past.”
He continues: “It is pretty incredible that the record still exists. At some stage it’s going to end and that must drive the Scottish boys. If this team win this weekend, they will be legends for ever. That’s some motivation.”
Could the 107-year-old record go tomorrow?
“It will be tough mate. The fact it is on Armistice Day provides more meaning for us because the war effort is such a source of pride in our country.
“These boys are driven. Steve Hansen has done a great job assembling a new team of coaches, and they are going to be hell of a difficult for anyone to beat on this tour. We have never lost a Test match on a northern hemisphere tour since 2002, and on the last two I don’t think we even had a try scored against us.
“What you have to remember is that these boys play in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand all year round, so they love coming to a passionate rugby country in the northern hemisphere. It inspires them, they enjoy the people in the cities, the atmospheres and it makes them play better.
“And the expectation to win is huge in New Zealand. You have a legacy to uphold so there is no excuse for not doing everything in your power, not just effort but intelligence and tactics, to win the game. That’s the way we are.
“A lot of our kids come through from low socio-economic groups and they honour their family and communities by pulling on the All Black jersey. They might appear confident, but they’re not arrogant. Very seldom will the All Blacks go into a game thinking ‘we’ll just roll up and win this game’, no matter what happened in the past.
“They are not just playing to win. They are genuinely not looking at Scotland, but focusing on a standard that has been set, a standard they want to be part of establishing.
“That’s why the score is often irrelevant. They take their eyes off the scoreboard because if you’re up 30-3 the natural reaction would be to throttle off. But they seldom throttle off because they are trying to establish a standard, and whether they have the game won or not is irrelevant.”
So, the real secret behind the dominance of the All Blacks lies in a unique mix of culture, ambitious youth development and a strong attachment to expectation and a legacy. It creates a heady brew, one that many in Scotland insist is too far removed to be relevant here. But that is to misunderstand Smith’s point.
He believes some nations think they lack the talent of New Zealand, when what they are actually bereft of is the ambition and intelligence in decision-making off the field. As an All Blacks supporter, however, he is not too disappointed for his country to remain unique in the manner in which it continues to push the bar higher.