What is more important to sporting success, culture or cohesion? Liam Napier speaks to a former Wallaby attempting to put data above mythology.

Culture is often used to justify success or failure in sport. The All Blacks win regularly, so their culture is good. The Warriors lose, so theirs is not right . . . or so the theory goes. The very concept of culture is a broad, vague explanation, though. Certainly not one that embraces all aspects.

Former Wallabies prop Ben Darwin and his Gain Line Analytics is drilling much deeper. With data sourced from the army, Nasa and business schools, and then applied to sport, his research suggests cohesion and continuity are far more important - and that the rugby world may be catching the All Blacks.

The oft-pushed notion around the All Blacks is their culture is fundamentally different to any other sports team.


Historically, opposition from the Northern Hemisphere in particular have contributed hugely to this mystical aura of near invincibility.

"We don't really see it that way," Darwin said. "We think the All Blacks are an amazing system and the culture is the outcome rather than the cause. Our research has told us that a whole bunch of amazing teams have a terrible culture; people hating each other and acting diabolically badly."

Darwin points to the AFL's West Coast Eagles, who made the finals 15 out of 17 years but had senior players encouraging drug use. Victorian Cricket, the Australian cricket team of the 1980s and even variations of the mafia who ran successful business operations but conducted themselves poorly, are other bad cultures Darwin cites.

"There are lots of examples where you can get a lot of ratbags but if they're well put together, even if they're behaving terribly off the field, it's effective. When the whole Respect and Responsibility review about the behaviour of New Zealand rugby came out, that was at odds with the idea about the All Blacks."

Darwin and Gain Line are not interested in studying behaviour. Research has led them to believe continuity of system is the greatest driver to the acquisition of skill.

With a small aligned system, this is where the All Blacks sit top of the tree. Provincial teams feed directly into Super Rugby franchises, allowing familiarity and inherent understanding to develop between players far quicker than their rivals.

Australian rugby, for instance, has never been as strong as 1991-2001, a golden decade when they won two World Cups and a Lions series but had two or three main teams.

Attempting to take on the NRL and AFL by expanding to five teams only eroded cohesion.
Darwin says when the Wallabies won the 1999 World Cup, the squad featured nine Queenslanders.

"The All Blacks have been coming out of quite a few small pockets over the last 15 years, particularly around Christchurch. The talent is not coming out of Auckland because the way their team is set up is pretty awful. The Auckland system right now inhibits a production of talent. The kids that go elsewhere do great things because of the systems, not because they are great players.

"I don't think the skill gap between New Zealand and everyone else is that big, it's the cohesion gap that's huge."

Queensland's State of Origin success was achieved with many of the same players. Photo / PhotosportNZ
Queensland's State of Origin success was achieved with many of the same players. Photo / PhotosportNZ

While Darwin feels New Zealand's strength lies in its ability to swiftly build combinations, he argues the All Blacks peaked in 2008 and many of the leading nations are now reeling them in.

This theory is based on points percentage per win. Results are skewed by the mismanagement of Australian and South African rugby but, on average, Darwin claims the All Blacks now win by less against Six Nations teams.

"We don't know whether the All Blacks are getting worse. We just know other countries are getting better. Across world rugby, particularly the Northern Hemisphere, the cohesion of the teams is increasing.

"The world is starting to catch up to the All Blacks in certain areas. The hard part for New Zealand is they can only make marginal gains. If they keep doing everything they are, the world will keep getting closer because the world is getting better set up."

The importance of cohesion, Darwin argues, is further illustrated by the Warriors and Gain Line's set of markers for the NRL, which he claims is 85 per cent accurate. Hit 7/10 of these markers and teams can challenge for the Premiership; 9/10 is dynasty territory.

"The Warriors have never hit those markers in their entire history. They've never had enough stability of system. They've never had enough continuity of players. They've never been settled enough to build anything, both in their attack and defence."

Continuity was prevalent in England's 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning team. Darwin says Clive Woodward's "Dad's Army" had to stay together much longer as, other than their Leicester contingent, they did not possess the required domestic cohesion.

This same concept stretches to recruitment, which Darwin says doesn't work en masse - a worrying signal for the Warriors, who haven't got the best from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck or Issac Luke and have fellow Kiwis Adam Blair and Gerard Beale on the way for next season.

Look no further than the Highlanders of 2013, when Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and other high-profile players moved south but the team won only three of 16 games to see issues. Big spending at the Newcastle Knights also didn't help mastercoach Wayne Bennett.

Darwin says teams are better off being patient and building with young players who learn faster than those thrust into new environments.

"When you look at a player at another club, it's a mirage. He's in that system; doing that job with those players. When you bring them to you, what a surprise it doesn't work out the same way."

Nonu's career is a classic case. Throughout his struggles to consistently perform in Super Rugby, he had no trouble stepping up for the All Blacks or in his final season at the Hurricanes. In both those teams, long-time midfield partner Conrad Smith was alongside him.

"There's a big difference between form and cohesion and a lot of people make that mistake. NSW make that mistake every year with State of Origin."

Indeed, Queensland have claimed 11 of the past 12 Origins mainly due to their consistent personnel. In 2014, NSW's last win, the Maroons spine did not function with the same fluidity after Daly Cherry-Evans replaced Cooper Cronk, who broke his arm early in game one.

Not only have Cameron Smith, Cronk and Billy Slater formed such an innate understanding of set plays at domestic level but the majority of the Maroons come from the Broncos, Cowboys and Storm - three teams with the highest level of continuity in the NRL.

"If you look back at Cronk, Smith and Slater, there were no signs they were ever going to be anything special. Slater couldn't make his touch footy team for his jockey club. Smith was working at a photocopy lab and Cronk was playing rugby. But the fact they went to the right system and became who they became is so much of a driver of the success Queensland now has."

Culture or cohesion? You be the judge.