Forget pints and junk food. The new age All Blacks are embracing green tea,
downward dogs and "floating", reports Gregor Paul.

Rugby may have been professional the last time the British and Irish Lions were in New Zealand, but the players were mired in an amateur culture of pies, pints and scepticism bordering on ridicule towards sports science.

Old habits died hard and as recently as 2004 many All Blacks, after a heavy loss to South Africa at Ellis Park, had to be put in the recovery position as they lay, passed out in the gardens of their team hotel after a sensational booze session.

The shocking thing about that night was not that it happened - heavy drinking was institutionalised across the game - but that there was no sense of embarrassment or even recognition it was not the way for a high performance sports team to behave.


The coaching group of Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith began a major clean-up of attitudes and behaviour at the end of that year. They made it their goal to drag the All Blacks into the professional age and empower the players to take ownership of their lifestyles.

It was a noble aim, but, initially in some respects, a hard sell. Some of the worst bullying cultures around booze were stopped and a chosen group took on greater responsibility for leading their peers, but essentially the All Blacks were still largely abiding by the old rules of getting on the grog after a win. A recovery session was downing a can of fizzy, scoffing a chocolate bar and playing a round of golf.

Consumption of junk food wasn't a sometimes thing, it was a perceived entitlement as reward for hard work.

Strength and conditioning coaches were to be avoided and anyone who even thought about knocking on the door of the sports psychologist would be ridiculed for being a combination of soft, mental and weird.

Why bother with that when five minutes with a few of the senior players would clean up any issues with the ubiquitous and fail safe advice of "harden up".

Rugby's marriage with beer may still be going strong, but booze and the All Blacks have become estranged.

They occasionally meet, but not the way they used to.

These days there are gallons of green tea and berry smoothies guzzled, but not so much beer. Each week the respective positional units will meet to go discuss their roles and the midfielders are believed to be known as the Green Tea Group.


Research has shown green tea to have healing properties and that's enough for it be embraced. This is the new age All Blacks where no one in the team cares about perception or feels the remotest need to conform to some kind of stereotype about what a rugby player should be all about.

Attitudes are progressive, inclusive and tolerant - alternative therapies and disciplines can be tried without fear of stigma being attached or a peer group judging.

Yoga and Pilates are big favourites within the squad because there is a near obsession to maintain and develop flexibility. Ma'a Nonu was one of the first to normalise yoga within the All Blacks and his devotion to it encouraged others.

Beauden Barrett revealed last year that he was a convert. "I've been working on my flexibility, that's been vital for me," he said. "I'm quite a stiff bloke so extra sessions here and there have certainly helped.

"It's more a recovery thing for me. It's great for the mind as well as the body. It's just getting that right balance and I've seen great benefits from that."

An older generation might wonder what Sir Colin Meads would make of these new age All Blacks and their green tea and downward dogs, but the beauty of Generation Y is that they don't appear to be saddled with the same insecurities and need for approval.

The culture within the All Blacks seems to be driven towards exploration of anything and everything to help performance. What works for some won't for others, but no idea is too wacky.

"I have tried yoga and I really enjoyed it but things have to fit into your plan," says All Blacks veteran Israel Dagg. "I know a lot of the guys love it.

"But I have started doing a thing called float where you jump into a pod and they have 500kg of epsom salts and you just lie there for an hour and switch off. That is amazing.

"I do that once a week and it is good for my mind. You get away from the game, relax and float. There are lots of tools out there ... Yoga, Pilates ... but I get about three hours of massage a week and float for an hour.

"I guess there could be that stigma that if you go to yoga it is only for girls. That's only what people think. It doesn't matter. Our body is our tool and we need it function. If you don't look after it, you won't perform."

In any cultural revolution there is usually a figure who ends up playing a hugely influential role in accelerating change.

For the All Blacks, in specific regard to embracing alternative therapies, treatments and micro-managing the development and recovery of the body, it would be Sonny Bill Williams. He has taken training, recovery and lifestyle management to new levels.

He doesn't drink, says he's "a total psycho" about what he eats, he prays twice a day, observes Ramadan, has dabbled with the ancient practice of cupping, owns a NormaTec machine - a high end compression device that aids recovery and is favoured by ultra endurance athletes - and is relentlessly working on ways to improve his chances of playing at the highest level. His physique - he's 1.94m, 108kg and has less than 5 per cent body fat - is proof of the lengths he goes to prepare himself.

"He's the ultimate professional," says Dagg. "He's always got these new tools and is bringing in these new machines. If you watch him, he's always stretching and looking after his body. He doesn't even lift tonnes of weights, he's just naturally gifted and strong. He looks after his recovery, food, nutrition, flexibility is huge for him - all that stuff is 100 per cent important."

Williams' attitude has been infectious. His work ethic is said to be a source of inspiration to all those who spend time playing and training with him. The running joke is that his teammates say they have to match his output to avoid looking puny in comparison, but there is a deeper realisation that players across the elite spectrum now understand better the levels of hard work and discipline that are required to keep winning.

There is also greater emphasis on career planning than there was 12 years ago and individuals have learned if they want to still be earning a living out of rugby in their mid-30s, they have to look after themselves.

"If you go back 10 or 12 years, there were no players over the age of 30 playing in New Zealand," says New Zealand Rugby contracts manager Chris Lendrum. "Now there are quite a significant number.

"There is no doubt the Super Rugby clubs are better resourced than they previously have been and they do more to care for the athletes. But if you look at a couple of guys, like Wyatt Crockett and Ma'a Nonu, say, players who have had long careers and played a lot of minutes, what isn't seen is the enormous amount of work they do on their own time to keep them at that peak level.

"Sonny Bill Williams has led the trend towards looking at alternative methods but I think a lot of our guys now are willing and ready to try different things to allow them to keep playing for longer."

When Blues loose forward Steven Luatua came off the field two weeks ago after playing a major role in helping his side beat the British and Irish Lions, he was asked what he thought had enabled him to play consistently at a much higher level in 2017.

"I have been trying to find consistency in my game and that has definitely been helped by seeing [Blues] sports psychologist Kylie Wilson.

"Being able to keep on doing that each week, I have been able to deliver some good performances.

"We just have a yarn. It is not like I am lying on the couch and she is trying to punch into my brain. We have a coffee, a talk and I try to pick up some nuggets that will help me on the field."

For those All Blacks who played against the Lions in 2005, the hardest thing for them to get their heads around in relation to these New Age All Blacks is the invasion and total acceptance of psychology and mental skills into the daily routine.

All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka is probably the busiest man in the management team.

No longer do players with an issue guts it out in their room hoping the "harden up" mantra will see them through.

Most of the current All Blacks will see Enoka at least once a week to hone a mental strengthening technique, talk over a problem or to simply get something off their chest that has been bugging them.

There is acceptance - and why wouldn't there be? - that mental skills are as much a part of the high performance package as physical and that there is no reason to distrust or be suspicious of those who practice the art of psychology.

For a sport that was built on hard men and macho cultures, it is astonishing now that the All Blacks sit around and talk about their feelings. But they do, because the stigma of being weak for seeing a psychologist has been removed and for the current All Blacks, nothing could be more normal than a session with Enoka.

"I have been fortunate to have worked with people like Gilbert right back to the early 1990s as a player and as a coach," says Hansen. "I think back then everyone thought it was a gimmick, but more fool them, because your brain is your most powerful tool.

"It has a clear side and a dark side and if you let the dark side take over then your performance falls away. There is no doubt that having a high mental fortitude, no matter what sport you play, you can operate from a better place. By embracing it you go to places that sometimes there is uncertainty about but you know you are going in the right direction. It is a skill so you can train your brain to perform under pressure.

"As we mature as a professional sport, athletes are starting to understand that if they want to have longevity they have to act in a professional manner and manage themselves in their stretching, their food intake, their alcohol intake - it's not a matter of them not drinking, it's how much do they drink, when do they drink?

"Rest and recovery is also important because you want to be performing to a high standard all the time. I think the understanding of all that has got better as time has gone on."

The picture, now the Lions are back in New Zealand, could hardly be more different. The size and body composition of the players in 2017 compared with 2005 is the most obvious representation of how much things have changed.

The All Blacks are, on average about six kilos heavier and almost two centimetres taller than they were in 2005. That equates to them being anything from 30 per cent to 50 per cent more powerful - an extraordinary athletic gain in a relatively short space of time.

This jump far exceeds the evolutionary growth curve of the non-rugby playing population and is testament to the fact the All Blacks have reached stunning standards of professionalism.

A recovery session is an ice bath, an intense stretching work out and a rub-down. The day after a test, the All Blacks hotel turns into a pop-up massage clinic, they travel with several treatment tables in their near-4000kg of luggage and usually have access to a hyperbaric chamber to help speed up response to injury.

Now players not only know what chia seeds are, they actually like them and even the traditional post-match lolly fest - there would be jars of sweets in the changing room after each test - has been done away with. Now there are nuts, seeds and dried fruits.

The high performance world Henry, Hansen and Smith envisioned when when they began their coaching reign in 2004, has been reached.