New Zealand's pride for its team reflects generations of history and tradition, going back to 1903, writes Jamie Tarabay of The New York Times.
The small blue plastic chair was never meant to fit Luke Jacobson's 6-foot-3, 107kg frame. Yet the 22-year-old loose forward perched alongside his tablemates, a group of 6-year-olds, in a classroom at Hinuera School here, building with Legos.
Elsewhere in the room, the considerable hulks of his fellow All Blacks Sam Cane and Atu Moli were hard to miss, bent over crayons and papers in a sea of tiny black jerseys donned for the special visit.
It was the day after the All Blacks team for the Rugby World Cup had been announced, and in a tradition begun years ago, the players fanned out across the country to meet with supporters, taking endless selfies, as they prepared to carry with them to Japan the hopes and expectations of this nation of 4.8 million people.
New Zealand's famed All Blacks are the most successful rugby team of all time, with a win rate of nearly 80 per cent. They held the No. 1 world ranking for almost a decade, losing it briefly for a few weeks in August before reclaiming it for a week, then dropping to No. 2 again. They won the last two World Cups, and the players wear the expectation of a third championship the way they wear the expectation that they will win every time they walk onto the field. And they nearly always do.
That indomitability? It dates from 1903, when the team played its first test match.
"As a nation, we were colonised, and it was a way for us in our isolation to show the world that we could be successful, we could beat the mother country, England," coach Steve Hansen said.
"If you go back far enough," he said, "this team was the first to give New Zealanders the confidence that, hey, we can compete against the big wide world, and that's why I think there's a connection with every New Zealander and the team."
Generations of New Zealanders have someone in their family who has played rugby. Jacobson, labelled a "bolter" for rising so rapidly in the ranks, counts rugby players among his brothers, his father and his grandfathers. He earned an invitation to the World Cup with only one test match to his name but will not play because of postconcussion symptoms.
"It's tradition for a Kiwi boy," he said. "Most of the guys in New Zealand have played rugby in their lives."
Jeff Wilson, who played for the All Blacks in the 1990s, compared New Zealand's affinity for the game to that of Brazil with soccer, or the United States with basketball.
"There's an inherent skill set with rugby which is part of our upbringing and the way we're encouraged to play," Wilson said. Players start young, learning from parents, and weekends are spent at rugby matches with families cheering from the sidelines.
Going into the tournament, the team knows there are targets on the back of each of those black jerseys. But Hansen insisted that it was just part of being an All Black.
"Not only are we expected to win test matches every time we play, but by big margins, and we believe that pressure will be something that will give us an advantage," he said. "It'll be interesting to see who can cope with it and who can't, because the tournament demands that they do."
He would not talk about which countries he considers the greatest challengers to the team. New Zealand's history and its people, he said, require the All Blacks to be better than all of them.
That expectation was present even in that first-grade classroom in the elementary school. Cooper Williams, 6, plays wing for his rugby team. Clad in black, he will cheer on the All Blacks in Japan.
Why? "Because they're very good," he said.
Written by: Jamie Tarabay
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