When Richie McCaw was formally presented with his first All Blacks jersey he buried his face in it for a full minute, as if savouring its scent and texture. He resembled a cross between a child finding solace in a comfort blanket, and an awestruck pilgrim receiving a sacrament.
No one has played more Tests than McCaw, 142, but his shirt retains the power of taonga, a Maori word which refers to a sacred object. Its mystique might have been grossly over-commercialised, but those who wear it as representatives of a small, geographically detached nation revere its symbolism.
All Black players are committed to “planting trees we will never see”.Their avowed aim is “to leave the jersey in a better place”. These are not phrases scrawled on a PR consultant’s whiteboard, despite the ubiquity of the brand. They have an authenticity beyond hashtags, hymns and contrived hysteria.
These are affirmations of faith, recognition of a duty which requires the quiet strength of humility and an intuitive understanding of history. Again, the Maori have a word for it, mana. This implies authority, stature and bearing.
The All Blacks, favourites for a World Cup which begins at Twickenham on Friday night, have the most influential culture in world sport. Stuart Lancaster, England’s head coach, has been guided, fundamentally, by New Zealand’s eight-year cycle of self-assessment between failure in 2003 and victory in 2011.
Leading football managers of my acquaintance admit they have been inspired by the insight provided by a seminal book, Legacy, by business consultant James Kerr. This dwells on the spiritual and practical dimensions of New Zealand’s re-emergence as rugby’s dominant nation. Some, like Garry Monk and Roy Keane, have gone further, and studied the squad at first hand.
In the jargon of the age, the All Blacks have a values-dominated, purpose-driven culture. Their significance lies in the way responsibility has passed from coaches to players, who are expected to have the personal maturity and professional experience to become self-determining. They set the agenda in the 48-hour build-up to a match, following a brutally intense training session.
Across elite sport, there has been a move away from micro-management and theatrical rage to mutual trust and respect. Steve McClaren, another inspired by the All Blacks’ example, admitted he needed to leave a traditional British coaching environment, to work in Holland, to learn to let his players think for themselves.
Modern dressing rooms are multi-cultural melting pots, and managers have to act accordingly. To give an increasingly relevant example, British players may be accustomed to acidic, often savage, criticism, but team-mates from different cultures are alienated by the perceived disrespect of personalised reproach in front of their peers.
The All Blacks realised they needed to realign a group which, in a reflection of New Zealand society, drew from Maori, European, Samoan, Fijian and Tongan tradition. They spoke of connecting with the land, the soil in which ancestors were buried.
The result, overseen by Derek Lardelli, a tobunga, a Maori wise man, was Kapa O Pango, a new Haka which is performed only occasionally, at the players’ discretion. The opening lines give a flavour of its unifying force:
“Let me go back to my first gasp of breath
Let my life force return to the earth
It is New Zealand that thunders now
And it is my time
It is my moment
The passion ignites
This defines us as the All Blacks.”
It is easy to sniff and sneer, and yesterday’s brand-building exercise on the South Bank of the Thames, when sponsors promised a “360 Haka Experience”, hardly smacked of cultural purity. Yet there is an emotional intelligence to their approach, embodied by their head coach, Steve Hansen.
Once notorious for a dour public persona, he used a high-profile television interview before leaving Auckland on Thursday to profess his “love” for his players. Challenged that such sentiments were “namby pamby”, he came close to defining whanau, a Maori word which translated literally means give birth, but is used colloquially to describe a team as a family entity.
“Is it namby pamby to love your own children and to love your wife? I don’t think so. So why would it be any different with the All Blacks? We spend a lot of time together. Some of those times are heart-wrenching, some of them are great experiences. They’re a group of brothers. It’s about sharing those intimate moments from a sporting environment. You become closer because of it.”
It is a ritualised experience. The squad has a Rugby Club night, a social occasion on which each player wears his original club jersey. It is a chance to let off steam while subconsciously returning to their roots. They have literally to fight for their seat on the bus; opponents speak with awe of tales of initiates emerging bruised and bloodied.
There are doubts about the solidity of their scrum. There is a sense of an era reaching its natural conclusion with a raft of impending retirements, but the tone is set, and continuity is assured. By the time Twickenham stages the final on 31 October, a member of the next generation, like winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, will have been anointed as a global icon.
McCaw seeks an appropriate conclusion to a career which has seen him lead his country in 106 Tests since May 2006. “History has shown what happened last week or last year means pretty much zero,” he said. “It’s what you do from here on. These are the challenges you live for. You don’t walk around with a big grin on your face saying ‘this is pretty cool’. It’s finding a way through.”
Why will the All Blacks be the first team to retain the trophy? They have the infrastructure, the raw material, but perhaps the best answer lies in the stark simplicity of a notebook McCaw keeps. It is filled with reaffirmations of faith, personal reminders and key phrases. Every game day begins with a simple inscription: Start Again.Reuse content