A new book claims the two most important figures in New Zealand rugby's excellence were not coaches, they certainly weren't administrators and they might not have even been the best players. Dylan Cleaver runs the rule over the new theory.

The All Blacks are, by any reasonable accounting, the world's preeminent sports dynasty.

Don't take my word for it, it's right there on page 65 of The Captain Class: The hidden force that creates the world's greatest teams. The new book, researched and written by Wall Street Journal deputy editor of enterprise (and former sports editor) Sam Walker, identifies the on-field captain as the most important precursor to extraordinary success.

The American has identified what he believes are the 16 greatest teams of all times, using an involved formula that measured sustained, domineering excellence (the team had to have at least five members who interacted with each other and directly engaged opposition, ruling out things like rowing crews for example).

The All Blacks are the only team to feature in what Walker calls Tier One twice, and a third side from the '60s just missed out.


Expecting the common denominator between the Tier One teams to be the usual suspects of superstar players, enlightened coaching and administration, or financial muscle, Walker was shocked to learn this wasn't always the case - in fact it usually wasn't.

"On a whim, I decided to make a list of the primary player-leaders of these 16 teams to see if any of their careers also served as bookends for their teams' Tier One performances," Walker wrote. "The results of this exercise stopped me cold. [Every team's dominant] performance corresponded in some way to the arrival and departure of one particular player. In fact, they all did. And with eerie regularity that person was, or would eventually become, the captain."

In the case of the two All Black teams the players were Wayne 'Buck' Shelford, who became captain after the 1987 World Cup victory until his controversial axing in 1990, and Richie McCaw, who was captain for the entirety of New Zealand's second spell of primacy until retiring in the immediate aftermath of consecutive World Cup victories.

When Walker dug deeper to find shared traits among the 16 athletes he'd identified, he found the following seven. How they might have applied to Shelford and McCaw is my interpretation.

Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.

Neither Shelford nor McCaw were the most gifted loose forwards. Never once could they be accused of taking their eye of the ball or giving less than 100 per cent effort.

Aggressive play that tests the limit of the rules.

Guilty as charged. A simple Google of "Wayne Shelford Huw Richards" will condemn Buck in the eyes of most Welshmen, while one of the focuses of Walker's analysis of McCaw is his ability to push the laws to the limit and beyond.

A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.

Neither Shelford or McCaw were glory players. Their positions on the field - No 8 and flanker - dictated in large part their gritty style of play.

A low-key, practical and democratic communication style.

Neither provided riveting copy or soundbites during their playing days. Neither were Churchillian orators though Shelford leaned more towards the blood-and-thunder addresses.

Motivates others with passionate non-verbal displays.

Their ability to play through pain was almost superhuman, which is looked at in-depth.

Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.

Shelford in particular was known to stand up to authority in defence of his players. It might have even played a part in his controversial (and, history tells us, damaging) axing from the side.

Ironclad emotional control.

Both seemed to have the ability to focus hardest at the most crucial points in the match.

In a chapter entitled "Intelligent fouls", Walker details an incident at the 2015 World Cup where McCaw was sinbinned for foot-tripping Argentine loose forward Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.

"McCaw's play was a clear example of a player breaking the rules to get an advantage," Walker wrote. "There was nothing sportsmanlike, or intelligent, about it. What irked people more than this, however, was that it seemed to be part of a pattern. For McCaw, testing the limits of the rules was a strategy...

"McCaw's pattern of behaviour and code of competitive morality hadn't won him global admiration," the argument continued. "The things that were said about him in the wake of the tripping affair had never been said of [beloved New York Yankees' captain] Derek Jeter. Yet there was no questioning his team's results. "

Walker explained that in most of the top 16 teams most of the captains tended to push the rules in pressure situations. McCaw was a classic example of this but it is doubtful whether that is his biggest leadership imprint. More likely it was his indefatigable defence, his ability to get over the ball at contact, to be an effective if unspectacular link man in attack and an almost superhuman ability to play through pain.

It is this last aspect that unquestionably defined Shelford.

The classic Shelford anecdote that frames his input into this is the Battle of Nantes, in which the French took advantage of an intimidated referee and a hostile crowd to brutalise the Jock Hobbs-led All Blacks on the pitch and the scoreboard.

During the match Shelford was kicked in the face and lost most of three teeth, he was sucker-punched by Eric Champ, he was headbutted and knocked out cold by Jean-Pierre Garuet-Lempirou, he was kicked in the balls by Daniel Dubroca and finally removed from the field for good after being knocked out by a French forearm.

In the showers the horrific discovery was made that his scrotum had been torn open and one of his testicles had fallen out and was dangling between his knees.

"After suffering an injury that would have caused 99.9 per cent of the male population to crawl whimpering into an ambulance," Walker wrote, "Shelford had been so focused on the game he didn't realise he'd been ripped apart."

Reference is also made to McCaw playing the 2011 on "a broken, swollen and distended foot that made every step feel like walking on hot coals".

Many of us have grown up with and witnessed the qualities of men like Shelford and McCaw. What is just as fascinating about Walker's work is what he doesn't attribute to the success of Tier One teams.

Most notably, coaching.

We live in the Age of the Coach. Every utterance of our national coaches are treated as pearls. We pour money into coaching development and treat coaching intellectual property as the most valuable sporting resource in the land.

Walker lights a Little Lucifer under the idea that the coach is the most important resource in great teams and it is great to watch it go up in flames.

"The conventional wisdom is that the coach, rather than the athletes who compete, is the primary force behind a team's success... on the 16 teams in Tier One, this was simply not the case."

Walker doesn't discount the fact some coaches are better than others, "in sports, however, these coaches only achieved their greatest success when they had a player serving as their proxy on the field".

Any study that halt the tiresome elevation of coaches at the expense of players is one worth reading.

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