Why Is New Zealand Rugby So Good?

why is new zealand rugby so good?Have you ever wondered why New-Zealand rugby is so damn good, what contributes to the fact that the All Blacks are not only the best rugby team, but the most successful sports team in the world?

Is it something in the water, maybe it has something to do with Sheep (use your imagination), or perhaps it comes from the Maori heritage on the tiny island with a population of less than 5-million people. In this post The Sport Freak sets out to investigate why the New Zealand All Blacks are such a dominant team, and what gives them that competitive edge which other teams seem to lack.

We start our investigation at the very bottom of the pyramid, at grassroots level, looking at the new-Zealand school system; school boy rugby.

Phase 1 – Junior Rugby

In our research, on the path to becoming an All Black, we stumbled onto a recent interview, which the Guardian did, with the 1st XV coach of New Zealand’s top ranked rugby school, King’s College. A question was put to coach Daniel, “What is the 1st thing a New Zealand school boy learns?” He replied, “catch and pass, catch and pass,” infact the basic “catch” and “pass” fundamental, the first thing learned by kids and still practiced hard at the very top of the pyramid, has become so synonymous with New Zealand rugby that they have conflated it into one word “catchpass.

The above explains a great deal, and can largely be contributed towards New-Zealand’s slick handling and poetic skills. When you compare the above to South African rugby the difference is startling. The greatest difference between New Zealand schoolboy rugby and South African schoolboy rugby is the amount of time and emphasis New-Zealand spends on passing.

When sitting in on a South African schoolboy practise at primary school level, you will find the complete opposite. At South African schoolboy level the greatest deal of emphasis is placed on the contact situation. Kids hitting driving bags hard, trying to bulldoze over teammates. You will often hear a coach say, “moer them boytjies“, instead of “catchpass boy.

Again the above explains a great deal, it is at junior level, the very bottom of the pyramid, where a player develops his skills and basic rugby fundamentals, the evidence can clearly be seen in the contrasting styles of play between South Africa and New Zealand, the physicality of the Boks vs skills of the All Blacks.

High School Rugby In New-Zealand VS South Africa

new zealand schoolboy rugbyAt High School level rugby is big business, it has recently been revealed that, the top-5 New Zealand rugby schools spend in excess of $400’000 a year, on their rugby programs, a staggering amount, for our South African readers, that is the equivalent of  4-million rand, being pumped into a school’s rugby program. Ice baths, physiotherapy, specialised coaching and weight training are all included in the package. Schoolboy matches often draws crowds in excess of 7000+ supporters and the biggest two matches of the week gets broadcasted live on Sky Sports New Zealand.

With the above taken into consideration, it is fair to say South African schools, despite not having the financial power, are largely on par with their New Zealand counterparts, at least in terms of an administrational standpoint. Top South African schools such as Grey College, Paarl Gym and Paul Roos (amongst a few others) all have their respective professional rugby coaching programs in place, 1st XV local derbies draws equally large crowds, and South African broadcaster Supersport made the broadcasting of schoolboy rugby a weekly installment.

Is New Zealand Rugby Superior At Schoolboy level?

With the above taken into consideration does it suggest, at schoolboy level, New-Zealand rugby is already superior? What would happen if the top New Zealand school plays the top South african school? We would go out on a limb and say at high school level there is little difference between South Africa and New Zealand rugby. We say this based on results from the annual World Rugby U/20 championship, a tournament which largely consists of school boys plucked straight out of highschool and placed into the junior international arena. Since 2008 the Baby Boks and Baby Blacks have played each other 6 times, the results read as follow:

  • 2010 – NZ 36 -SA 6
  • 2012 –  SA 22 – NZ 16
  • 2013 – SA 41 -NZ 34
  • 2014  SA 33 – NZ 24
  • 2014 SA 32 – NZ 25

The above results are rather surprising, despite the money and resources New Zealand rugby has at their disposal, at junior level, they have managed to beat South Africa only once…and that was way back in 2010. Thus, it is fair to assume that at the 2nd stage of the pyramid, senior high school level, South Africa is on par with New Zealand if not better.

(Sidenote: Paarl Boys High School, currently ranked 1st on the FNB school rankings, is about to embark on a tour of New-Zealand, It will be interesting to see how South Africa’s best high school rugby team does against the best of New-Zealand, although not conclusive the result should give a good indication, how SA schoolboy rugby compares to NZ)

Phase 2 & 3 – Provincial And National Level

It is at senior level, where the difference starts coming into play. While South Africa’s Varsity Cup, is on par with the best, it is at club and provincial level where SA starts lagging behind.

South African club rugby is in dire straights, with lack of resources and proper management, however, we would like to zoom in on the provincial level. The ITM Cup is New Zealand’s equivalent to the Currie Cup. If you examine ITM Cup rugby and compare it to South Africa’s Currie Cup, New Zealand starts taking a distinctive lead, and breaking away from the rest of the world.

While South Africa’s Currie Cup is of a very high standard and can certainly be ranked amongst the best in the world, it is fair to say New Zealand’s ITM Cup is superior both in terms of overall competitiveness and playing quality.

It is at this point where we need to ask the question, why is it that at schoolboy level South Africa is on par with New Zealand but at provincial level the Kiwis start pulling away? To answer the above one needs to look at a number of different aspects, not least of which includes the following:

  • Skill level & basic fundamentals of the game
  • Coaching
  • Administration

Skill Level And Fundamentals

At the start of the post we mentioned the “passcatch”, compared to South Africa’s, “moer-them”, coaching style. Since New-Zealand rugby players had the basic fundamentals of rugby drilled into them at a very young age, it can now be further expanded – those incredible passes and offloads you see, by New-Zealand rugby teams, is not luck, it comes from years of practice, drilled in at a single digit age.

The physicality which SA youngsters grew up with, is something which can be taught, and implemented, at senior level.

Sure it can be argued when it comes to brute strength, defending, rucking / mauling and set-piece plays, South Africans have a slight advantage, however, one has to ask the question, what carries more weight in modern day rugby, physicality or slick skills? The former being the prefered choice, with the latter perhaps being more relevant a decade or so ago.

Developing and perfecting skills is something which take years of practise. Thus, we can assume one of the reasons for New Zealand’s dominance, is simply because of the fact that they place a large emphasis on the basics of the game, starting at the very bottom of the pyramid.

To further test the above theory, consider the following:

  • Name 1-player who can compete and possibly outplay the best New-Zealand player in terms of strength and physicality…there is a number of players who comes to mind, Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph Du Toit to name but a few.
  • Now name 1-player who can compete with the best of New-Zealand  in terms of basic skills and all round playing ability…it’s difficult to think of any single player…because there is none! Willie LeRoux can possibly be thrown into the mix as South Africa’s most skillful player, however, he will come second best by some distance against even an average New-Zealander.

Coaching

While South Africa is a rugby factory producing quality players at will, South Africa is simply not able to produce quality coaches. We have previously written extensively about previous South African coaches and evaluated the best from the past 2-decades. While South Africa has produced some big names such as Nick Mallete and Jake White, they are from a golden era, now long gone.

New-Zealand in contrast seems to produce great rugby minds at will, however, this is no coincidence. The New Zealand rugby union has stringent rules in place, a system, which South African rugby lacks.

The NZRU will approach future prospects, start them at club or junior provincial level, monitor their progress and in a timely manner let the coach progress through the system, U/20’s, ITM CUP, Super Rugby, Assistant National Coach…Head Coach

Tana Umaga makes for a good example of the above, so does Steve Hansen, Graham Henry, and all other New Zealand coaches.

Perhaps the primary reason for New-Zealand’s superiority in the coaching department is their habit of, trusting and retaining their coaches for longer periods, having a long term vision instead of focusing on the present, something which South African Rugby seems unable to grasp with their 4-year stints, “win the World Cup else you are unemployed.

It would have been very easy for the New Zealand Rugby Union to have told Graham Henry after the All Blacks shock exit from the 2007 World Cup to hit the road, however, they stuck with their coach and they are still reaping the rewards.

Administration

If you are reading this post, chances are you are familiar with The Sport Freak, browsing our rugby blog, you will find dozens of posts regarding South African rugby’s maladministration, thus to avoid what have been said in the past we will keep this section brief.

In short South African rugby administrators, don’t care about pursuing excellence, they only care about self-enrichment and transformation, and will bulldoze everything which stands in their way to achieve the above. This makes for a complicated situation, which is currently having devastating effects on South African rugby. You can read more about maladministration in South African Rugby by clicking here and here and here.

In direct contrast to SARU, the New Zealand Rugby Union only cares about one thing, making and keeping New Zealand the best rugby team in the world. The NZRU mission statement reads as follow:

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is committed to ensuring rugby is free of all forms of corruption and ensuring the game remains an honest test of skill and ability.

In Contrast SARU, instead of devising and implementing strategies to improve the game, to ensure South African rugby remains an “honest test of skill and ability,” they are doing the complete opposite to the NZRU by rather being occupied by things like the mission statement below:

south african rugby 2019 mission statement

south african rugby 2019 mission statement

Conclusion

Above we have touched on some of the primary reasons, as to why New Zealand rugby are currently miles, light-years ahead when compared to the rest of the rugby world.

Comparing South African rugby to New Zealand rugby, it is clear that SA rugby, despite lacking resources, has the necessary talent to compete with New-Zealand rugby and it can even be argued that South African rugby is ahead of New-Zealand at junior level.

However, because of South African rugby’s inability to coach and improve the fundamentals of the game at a young age, combined with the lack of quality coaches at the professional level, due to not having a proper coaching development system in place, are all some key areas as to why New Zealand rugby starts breaking away at professional level. When you combine maladministration and political interference to the above, it is clear as daylight, that unless SA rugby starts making the necessary adjustments (something which is unlikely to happen) they will never again be able to compete with New Zealand.

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