In sports, few teams have dominated their competition the way the New Zealand All Blacks of rugby union have. Since the introduction of world rugby rankings in 2003, New Zealand has held the No. 1 ranking longer than all other countries combined.
A year ahead of the next Rugby World Cup, the dominance shows no sign of abating, even though New Zealand has a population of under five million and is a fraction of the size of several rivals in the sport. Understanding how New Zealand maintains that dominance requires a look at the grass roots of the game, where generations of young boys have dreamed of pulling on the black jersey.
Gisborne, on the quiet east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, is a place of such dreams. The humble city is home to Gisborne Boys’ High School, a public secondary school with a rugby pedigree. Gisborne Boys’ has won the National First XV Championship, the country’s premier tournament for high school rugby, four times and produced elite players, including multiple members of the All Blacks.
The majority of the high school’s student body is of Maori descent. The administration views nurturing a connection to cultural identity as a key to developing strong boys and strong rugby players.
“Most sporting teams strive to create a team culture, whereas our team is modeled after an actual living and breathing culture,” said Ryan Tapsell, dean of Maori studies at Gisborne Boys’ and the defensive coach for the First XV, the senior team composed of the most talented players in the school. “Our players reflect on the ancestors that have come before them, those that have set a foundation for us.”
The team follows guidelines, known as kawa, that feed off the traditional rules of Maori culture, which, if broken, negatively impact the team’s foundation.
The school also prioritizes the study of the game itself. Rugby is a credited course at Gisborne Boys’. Several days a week, students watch film, analyze game strategy, learn the principles of fitness, nutrition and training, lift weights and practice yoga. Room 11 has been dedicated to the former New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu, who wore No. 11 and is revered as one of the All Blacks’ finest players.
The apex of rugby identity at Gisborne Boys’ is the First XV. Mark Jefferson, the First XV head coach, states plainly, “The First XV is the very heart of our school.”
Jefferson is an alumnus of Gisborne Boys’. He was captain of the 1994 team, which is still considered to be the greatest schoolboy team in New Zealand history. It won every national and international contest it entered.
There are several players on the Gisborne First XV who are on the radar of the national schoolboy team selectors. Those chosen will go to a regional camp run by a franchise of the Super League, the top-level professional rugby league club competition.
It is a perfect feeder system to develop homegrown talent with a common goal across all levels: to create future All Blacks to represent New Zealand.
“The whole system in New Zealand, amateur through to professional, is structured to feed back into creating All Blacks,” said Tom Cairns, director of rugby at Gisborne Boys’.
This system operates under an unusual restriction. To be an All Black, a player can only compete for a New Zealand-based franchise, even though players can receive far more lucrative contracts playing in other overseas leagues, like those in France and England. In other countries, players can chase the biggest contracts while still representing their country. In New Zealand, the best players consistently make financial sacrifices in hopes of playing for the All Blacks.
How long the All Blacks’ domination can continue may depend on the evolution of the grass-roots game in schools like Gisborne Boys’. “Traditionally, the strength of New Zealand rugby has been an even playing field where every school can compete,” Cairns said. With some wealthier schools paying coaches and offering scholarships to players from outside their regional areas, however, Cairns fears that some teams may be left behind, a negative for New Zealand rugby over all.
For now, and with the next World Cup around the corner in 2019, New Zealand’s domination continues, and according to Cairns there is just cause for optimism. “In New Zealand, we are on the edge,” he said. “When we make decisions in the rugby sense, the rest of the world follows.”