All Black takers rather than givers

By John Hart

John Hart is uniquely placed to analyse the state of New Zealand rugby. He has been to all six World Cups; a former coach who oversaw a golden period for the All Blacks; also dumped out of a Rugby World Cup (1999) by a rampant France. Hart continues to do a lot behind the scenes in rugby, retaining his passion for the game. Asked to give his views on the NZ game, he says it is in a state of crisis.

After the World Cup quarter-final defeat in Cardiff, I was besieged with calls from the media to comment on the World Cup exit. I chose at that time to be silent, preferring to treat the embattled coaching staff with respect and dignity.

However, since analysing our national game, I have decided to share some of my views which clearly won't please everyone but are formed from a professional rather than a personal perspective.

New Zealand rugby is in malaise and I am concerned that our national administrators are acting as though they are oblivious.

Professional rugby is heading down a route of financial ruin; our obsession with winning the World Cup has led us down some dangerous and damaging paths - the importance of test matches has been reduced; some of our players see themselves as more important than the game; our provincial competition is a failure.

The game at top level is no longer the exciting product we have come to love, with the complexity of the rules and a focus on defence rather than attack inhibiting the game as a spectacle, be it for the fan at the ground or the TV viewer at home.

As a result, many key stakeholders, including sponsors and fans, have become increasingly disenchanted.

There has been much recent debate on the appointment of the All Black coach. But there is plenty to be concerned about, even before you get into that subject. Having said that, there is no denying the role of All Black coach is entwined in any discussion of New Zealand rugby.

CARDIFF

So let's consider the 2007 World Cup. The All Black strategy leading up to the Cup was based around three key elements: rotation, reconditioning, and on- and off-field leadership.

Graham Henry and his fellow coaching staff and selectors Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith and Sir Brian Lochore convinced the NZRU board and much of the country that this was the right way to go, as we hadn't won the Cup since 1987 and consequently all other campaigns were flawed.

Reconditioning didn't work. We had a bunch of super athletes, many running their fastest times and lifting their heaviest weights. But we didn't bring together reconditioning with actually playing the game.

They were fit - but also injury-prone, with numerous injuries during the pool phase and the quarter-final itself. Henry clearly stated before the World Cup that he and his panel would not play injured players.

Rotation didn't work. The stated aim was to have 30 players in the squad, all of whom could go on the field to win the World Cup. Yet in the final game and at a crucial period, we had the inexperience of Brendon Leonard, Luke McAlister and Isaia Toeava on the field. Two of them were playing out of position and, more importantly, they had never played together.

Rotation also led to selection issues like the lack of Aaron Mauger and Doug Howlett in that quarter-final. That was hard to fathom - although the inference was that they might have played the next match. Rotation may provide and develop depth but it does not allow combinations and teamwork to grow. It has also devalued test matches and the All Black jersey.

I heard Henry say at a function in 2006 that rotation would be gone in 2007 and that they would be looking to play their best team in the World Cup. We continued with rotation throughout the pool phase.

The All Blacks were reported to have played on average about 12 games each in 2007. In comparison, English players would have played 30, with some being closer to 40, during the 2007 season.

We were a good side, talented and even experienced. But we were not experienced under pressure. We were conditioned physically but not match-hardened. We certainly were not conditioned for a white-hot test match and seemed to be devoid on the field.

I felt sorry for Richie McCaw - he was left on his own out there. The strategy was to have a core of senior players who led by taking responsibility for their own actions; their own area; their own play. But there was no Jerry Collins, no Dan Carter, no Byron Kelleher in the second half; no Mauger, no Howlett.

McCaw gave 110 per cent, as usual, but the consequence of losing the leadership team that he had been trained to work with meant there was no-one else to help him make the calls tactically at Cardiff.

That's why the All Blacks just played the pick and bash stuff in the last 10 minutes. Yes, the referee played a role in the loss. No question about that. And the French played with great heart and passion; I saw a lot of great French defence.

But the All Blacks didn't have the tools to do the job because of reconditioning, rotation and a lack of leadership.

If you think back to the old amateur days, we had All Black captains coming out our ears - Brian Lochore, Wilson Whineray, Colin Meads, Kel Tremain, John Graham. You could have nominated 10 guys capable of leading the All Blacks and they were nearly all provincial captains.

Now, with the current structure of provincial rugby in New Zealand and a dysfunctional national provincial competition (that mostly does not include All Blacks), development for captains is limited to the captains of five Super 14 teams. And when any of these appointments are not current All Blacks, such as Jono Gibbes and Craig Newby, our captaincy options are even more depleted.

We no longer have a number of captains adept in running a team and in practical aspects of the game - and if you don't have the experience from provincial or Super 14 level, how are you going to do it when there are 80,000 people screaming at you during a test and with the French bashing away at you?

This leads into the fact that many of our players simply can't or don't think for themselves - but I'll return to that later.

OBSESSION

This was the first World Cup I attended as a spectator. I'd been at all the rest either as a coach or TV commentator.

What was clear at Cardiff was the utter dependency many New Zealanders have on the All Blacks being successful. This gets more intense each time we do not win the World Cup.

New Zealanders are obsessed with it - and I think that is one of the fundamental problems of the Henry era. The unblinking focus on the Cup affected every part of our game. I'd go one step further: it's been at the cost of our game.

Everything else was ignored in search of the Cup - and I think the NZRU have a lot to answer for. Everything was sacrificed - Super 14, the Air NZ Cup and key stakeholders and fans suffered.

Ironically our decision to take players out of Super 14 and thus weaken the New Zealand franchises enabled the South Africans to grow in confidence, win the Super 14 for the first time and give themselves an excellent platform for the World Cup.

Why did we do that? This year shows us there probably is no 'model' when it comes to winning the Cup. There is no magic formula. England graphically showed us that. They were an ageing team in terrible form and they lost a pool match by 30 points.

If you listen to players like Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt, they had a coach whom the players felt was not doing the job - so they were forced to think for themselves, apparently took over and made the final.

In New Zealand, we seem to think that because we are the best team, with the most talented players, we have some God-given right to win, or at least be in the final. It isn't so. It's a knockout tournament and anything can upset you in that one game - complacency, the referee, the weather, the opposition. You have to be conditioned to deal with those and other issues that can trip you up.

PAMPERED PLAYERS

That obsession has also been reflected in the way we have made it too easy for our players.

We have been captured by the belief that we have to look after them - and we've gone overboard. We have lost the balance between playing the game and preserving the body to last season after season.

It's salaries; it's things like reconditioning and rotation; it's the collective agreement with the Players' Association; it's the exaggerated ego and importance of some players.

The World Cup team had a support staff of 22 people. In 1999, I copped it because we had nine - and that was one of the smaller complements at that tournament. Nowadays, however, they have scrum trainers, fitness trainers, dieticians, psychologists, kicking coaches, people to help them with every little thing. Too many people, too many voices.

No wonder players are unable to think for themselves and rely on their instincts in tough situations. If they are players who have come through the academies, being looked after is all they know.

They are dependent on analyses by video and stats. They are focused on doing everything they are told to do - right down to what they eat, wear and say.

The 2007 strategy was "better people make better All Blacks." Life skills make better people. Football on its own does not necessarily make better people.

I am not advocating a return to the amateur days - you can't - but we have to look at some of the key values which made our game what it was and what it can continue to be.

Players from the amateur era worked; and learned life skills and things like decision-making and taking responsibility. We may have taken a lot of that away from the modern player in the professional era.

We should learn from other sports. The NRL are introducing an under-20 competition next year with the teams playing as curtainraisers for the seniors each week. These players will be on minimal salaries, so the intent is to encourage them to join the workforce or develop educational opportunities by ruling that the teams can train only outside the hours of 8am-4pm on four days of the week. It's a smart play.

I believe our young rugby players are being trained to worship at the altar of the game, rather than getting out in the big, wide world and learning things that grow them as people.

These days, All Blacks are paid a lot of money for which they play a lot less rugby. My concern is that many of them have become takers rather than givers to the game on which they rely.

Some of our modern players appear not to know how lucky they are to be playing in the professional era - that it is a privilege to be an All Black and that they have to accept responsibility once they get there.

I don't buy into the argument that there is too much pressure on our players today. Professional sport may be demanding but it can be also rewarding.

Spare a moment for all those great All Blacks who lived for the jersey in the amateur days and who would have loved the opportunity to build a financial base for the rest of their lives.

GOING BROKE

I've left perhaps the biggest issue until last. The game risks going broke here. Sponsors are increasingly difficult to find, gates are on the decline. Revenue is slipping but costs are increasing. The financial platform is sustainable only as long as we can find sponsors, media rights' holders and fans prepared to fund the game.

When professional rugby was first introduced in 1996, the vast majority of our provincial unions were struggling to make ends meet.

Now they have the additional impost of paying players.

Having even, exciting competitions which attract sponsors and fans is a prerequisite for success. This year's Super 14, severely compromised by the decision to take out 22 players for reconditioning, must have caused sponsors to question their commitment. However, the Super 14 is excellent and we should continue to support and develop it.

The Air NZ Cup on the other hand is, frankly, a non-event. The current competition has limited appeal to fans, with fewer than 9000 people turning up to a semifinal involving Canterbury and Wellington.

It clearly needs to be reformatted and the number of teams reduced. We don't have the money in New Zealand nor the players nor the fans to support a 14-team competition.

Under the current structure, some of the traditional rivals are not even meeting each other. This year, for instance, North Harbour didn't play Auckland. Canterbury haven't appeared at Eden Park since 2004.

Unions will go broke trying to live with the current structure of the competition. Yet when the unions raised their concerns, NZRU chief executive Steve Tew reportedly said that going broke was their problem.

Provincial unions going broke is an issue for New Zealand rugby as a whole.

The message is that this critical issue is not seen as a priority. There certainly is no bigger issue than the survival and growth of the game at grassroots level.

The NZRU put too much trust in the fact they would win the World Cup and the world would be their oyster. They saw huge commercial returns coming their way, leading into defending the Cup at home in 2011. That didn't happen. So what do they do now? More of the same? Or make changes?

That is the only comment I will make on the All Black coaching role to be determined shortly. If Graham Henry is reappointed, after repeatedly saying he would not change any of the strategies put in place over the past two years, it will polarise opinion within the New Zealand game.

The "anti-Henry" brigade will not rest. They will be totally on Henry's case.

The NZRU board will be seen to have endorsed failed strategies. This would put them under increasing pressure at the ballot box at next year's NZRU AGM.

What we need in rugby at the moment is visionary leadership, unity, strength of purpose and ways to work together to fix these issues.

I've been impressed with the tremendous role that Jock Hobbs as chairman of the NZRU has played in re-establishing New Zealand rugby on the international scene after the 2003 World Cup fall-out. He now faces significant challenges in leading the game here at home.

- HOS

Part 2 of John Hart's views will appear in the Herald on Sunday tomorrow.
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