Rugby Union: Mitchell reveals Black arts

Paul Trow explains why England should be well aware of New Zealand strengths
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The Independent Online
Forget the Lions in South Africa, forget the Five Nations' Championship, forget the Heineken Cup. The true examination of how far British rugby has travelled in two years of professionalism is about to be sat.

Tomorrow, 36 of the world's finest players fly into Heathrow with the express purpose of upholding and extending one of the proudest traditions in sport. The All Blacks are on their way and once again it is time to face the music. During the next month, New Zealand's latest ensemble will play four internationals - two in England and one each against Wales and Ireland - plus five other matches, starting with Saturday's tour opener against Llanelli at Stradey Park.

So far this year it has been business as usual on the field with Auckland retaining the Super 12 title and New Zealand winning the Tri-Nations tournament against Australia and South Africa with almost embarrassing ease. Off the field, there has been even more business than usual after the signing of a five- year sponsorship deal with Adidas. Reputedly worth pounds 70m, it is four times the value of England's contract with Nike and in effect scuppered plans to float the All Blacks on the stock market.

The quality of the squad under the tutelage of John Hart, their articulate coach, was demonstrated 12 months ago when the New Zealand Barbarians led England a merry dance at Twickenham. A year later and more experienced, the All Blacks are an even tougher prospect, but there will be concern at the news this weekend that Jonah Lomu is struggling to complete his recovery from a career-threatening kidney complaint. After all, the giant Tongan wing, the hero of the last World Cup, is guaranteed to put bums on seats as well as on the floor.

But the cult of the individual is not the true All Black ethos. The team is what matters, and yet it seems remarkable that a country with a population of fewer than four million keeps producing so many good ones.

John Mitchell, England's assistant coach and a former All-Black forward, albeit of the uncapped variety, is a product of the system and better qualified than most to answer this conundrum.

"The smallness of the population is actually a major advantage because it's much easier to identify good players at an early age and bring them through," said Mitchell, who is also player-coach at Sale. "A lot play regularly from four or five whereas the starting age in England is much older. Rugby is the No 1 male sport in New Zealand, like soccer is here, but there's more competition from other sports now. Everyone plays rugby at some stage, but the emphasis in schools is changing - more on participation now than winning."

Maybe so, but why is there so little evidence of that attitude when the troops line up for the Haka? "The great motivating factor behind the All Blacks is the tradition of setting and maintaining the highest standards. No one wants to let that tradition down. If you're a rugby player in New Zealand it's your life and you're passionate about it. You dream about becoming an international, but if you play badly in an All Black jersey it can scar you for life."

Mitchell, himself unbeaten as an All Black, believes that consistency of coaching plays a big part in New Zealand rugby supremacy. "Obviously some people have different methods but there's a strong thread of continuity. The introduction in 1976 of the national championship for provincial sides created a natural feeder for the All Blacks. My home town, Hamilton, has a population of 90,000 and yet we have 36 rugby clubs in the area in three divisions. That structure produces the best 21 players for Waikato. The championship goes on over 10 weeks - it's a very intense period.

"The other great force behind New Zealand rugby is that it's part of our culture. The whole community gets behind the players and they're seen as role models. When the All Blacks play England, every clubhouse in the land will be packed at 2am with people watching the game on television. The present All Blacks are setting standards which everyone else is following. They're outstanding athletes but they prepare well and in Fitzpatrick they have a captain whose commitment, intensity and attitude are immense."

The old adage insists you might score more points than the All Blacks but you'll never beat them. The compliment paid this week to the newly installed England captain Lawrence Dallaglio by Nigel Melville, his director of rugby at Wasps, says it all. "Lawrence is so focused, he's like an All Black."