Everyone remembers their first day at school or a new job, this feeling of fear of either looking out of place or making a mistake. Everyone has days like this. But not everyone becomes an All Black. Over 139 years, just over 1,200 men have worn the jersey of one of rugby’s most iconic and dominant teams.
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They won over 77% of their Test matches, more than any other men’s team. They have won three Rugby World Cups; no men’s team has won more. Their practice and culture have become synonymous with success not only in sports, but in the world at large.
They are outstanding. But when you first join this sacred club, the last thing you want to do is stand out. On my first day, I was excited but scared at the same time, says Richard Kahui, recalling his arrival at the camp in 2008, when he was 23 years old.
“I didn’t want to disappoint – not be late for a meeting or lose the ball in training. The first thing you do is meet the team manager, receive your room key and all new uniforms. It’s as exciting as Christmas.”
The uniform symbolized belonging to the team. But later that evening, two senior players – Conrad Smith and Keven Melamu – were waiting for Kahui in the team room with a black book that would reveal the special meaning of becoming an All Black.
Today, players can be called to international duty simply by adding them to a WhatsApp group chat. In 2004, Smith learned more publicly about his choice. New head coach Graham Henry was keen to bring in new talent after New Zealand lost to Australia in the semi-final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
I was alone in the apartment and wasn’t even going to listen to the announcement, but I realized it was time and turned on the radio with a sandwich in my hand, says Smith, who had only played one season of professional rugby at this point.
Casey Laulala, the opposition centre, was named in alphabetical order, and I remember thinking that maybe this wasn’t for me. Then it came to S and my name was called so I put my sandwich down and my phone started working.
Four years later, Kahui didn’t even have a radio. He had to call All Black Stephen Donald, his best friend, who put his phone on speaker and placed it next to the speaker so Kahui could listen to the announcement.
Donald’s name was said before mine so I could hear his family’s screams before I calmed down, he says. Then, as it went even lower, my name came out. My phone started ringing. My mom and dad were crying and I almost cried. I found out about it like everyone else.
The All-Blacks’ ceremonial war dance before a match is one of rugby’s iconic spectacles. They insist this is not being done to piss off the opposition; rather, it’s for yourself. Some of his most significant performances take place in private, away from cameras and confrontation.
There’s a process when you’re brought into a group and the haka plays a big part in that, especially on tour when there’s a group of new players, Smith says.
On my tour, there were seven or eight of us debuting, maybe more. You talk about yourself and your journey – where you are from and a little about yourself. Everyone welcomes you. During your first hack, you meet experienced players and do it. We’ve got a full team, it’s so special and you’re not just talking about the haka, you’re talking about the jersey, the heritage, the proud history of the All Blacks and now is your chance.
A Haka and a Welcome: The New Zealand Rugby World Cup team Tradition
The message was don’t be scared by it, you are meant to be here and you are now the keeper of the jersey so leave your mark on it. Kahui’s experience was similar. The squad welcomes everyone into the room and does a big haka, welcoming you to the team, he says. Even talking about it makes you feel funny.
It’s one of those energetic and emotional moments in your life and at the end you shake everyone’s hand. When you leave that room, you are not treated or spoken of differently—you are completely black. Rugby fans can book Rugby World Cup Quarter Final Tickets on our website at exclusively discounted prices.
“You can sit at the same table with someone like Richie McCaw. You feel like you have every right to do what everyone else is doing. it was like one of those special days in your life.”
The little black book
Leaving your legacy and marking your time in the famous black jersey is a fundamental message for all newcomers. This goes beyond metaphor. All black people are literally writing their own history. When Smith and Melamu approached Kahui on his first day, Smith – by then a senior player – handed him a black book.
There are a few things that only All Black players get. One of them is a black book that contains all the information you heard about at the meeting, says Kahui. But it also has all these blank pages. You need to keep a diary of your time as an All Black.
After the meeting, Conrad Smith let me look at his book. There was the date and the teams he played for, what he felt, what it meant. It was truly amazing to get inside his book and his mind. They say it’s your book so take care of it and when you play your first game you give it away and they put a picture of you playing in it and you have it for the rest of your life.
The book was introduced after Graham Henry took charge of the team following the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Smith believes cultural change is necessary and praises Gilbert Inoka for helping bring about that change. Over time, Enoka established himself as the All-Blacks’ head of leadership and mental performance. However, at first his ideas were viewed with suspicion, and he had to pretend to be a massage therapist.
The Little Black Book: A Symbol of the New Zealand Rugby World Cup team
He was the initiator of the introduction of the little black book. According to Smith, opinions about the book varied, but the main idea was that it symbolized the All Blacks. The first few pages were dedicated to the heritage and a little about history and achievements.
The book explains how New Zealand’s many cultures were united by their shared love of the black jersey and the silver fern. Then there were blank pages and the choice was yours, Smith adds. You didn’t have to write in it you could draw pictures and do whatever you wanted in it.
I started writing notes for each game. I think you understand that passing one test is something special, so you need to make sure you want to play 10 or 20. Just wrote things that I really liked about the games. It’s not because they were any less special, but because I developed my own routine.
Smith and Cowie have been rivals for the midfield spot, but the culture the All Blacks have instilled is one of senior players helping future stars. I think you don’t appreciate how much you can help someone and you do it because you’ve been there before, Smith says. I knew how important it was for Tana Umaga to talk to me when I started my All-Black career when I sat quietly and told me that everyone was nervous.
“It made an impression on me, so I knew when I was in that position, I was going to do it. It was the same for me with Richard, a guy I really respect and appreciate.”
The winning culture and Rugby World Cups
Smith and Kahui both joined the All-Black squad under the shadow. Despite being the world’s leading Test team, since winning the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 they have lost their next five tournaments. A crushing defeat to France in the 2007 quarter-finals was the last straw. Something had to change.
That 2007 team was as good, if not better, than the [Rugby World Cup-winning] teams of 2011 and 2015, said Smith, a veteran of all three tournaments. We just didn’t have the right mentality and didn’t prepare as well for the World Cup as we did in 2011 and 2015.
We realized that at the World Championships there were shortcomings in this, and we had to correct it. Even though our mentality was great and we were able to keep the All Blacks at that level, we still had to adapt it for the Rugby World Cup.
We had to admit that the uniqueness of the tournament could pose new challenges for us. In 2011, Smith and Kahui started the tightest game in New Zealand rugby history; one that challenged even the most prepared team.
Four years after a shock defeat to the French in the last eight, they faced the same opponents again in the final on home soil. A win would end a 24-year wait for the game’s biggest prize.
We worked hard on things like the mental ability to stay in the blue and not in the red, Kahui says. Blue is about calmness and being in the present moment without thinking about the outcome. Red is negative thoughts, where you think, What if? Rugby fans can book Rugby World Cup Final Tickets on our website at exclusively discounted prices.
The Unlikely Hero: Stephen Donald’s Journey to Rugby World Cup Glory
Few imagined the possibility of what actually happened. Injuries have ruled out first and second halfbacks Dan Carter and Colin Slade. 34 minutes into the match, All Blacks third-ten player Aaron Cruden also disappeared.
An old friend of Kiya Kahui. Weighing half a stone, Donald was fishing for whitebaits on the Waikato River when Henry called him and asked him to join the team ahead of the semi-final. Now, with the jersey several sizes too small on his back and the huge weight of the nation’s expectations on his shoulders, he was faced with the task of winning the Rugby World Cup.
Donald duly converted the decisive penalty in a nervy 8-7 victory. Cowie says the lessons learned from a series of Rugby World Cup disappointments – when the tournament required an extra level of preparation and fortitude coupled with the All-Black’s storied culture – have paid off.
A Legacy of Planning and Preparation: The All Blacks’ Road to Rugby World Cup Glory
In training in 2009 and 2010, we did a scenario drill where he was down two linebackers, he says. So, in 2011, when we lost three, it seemed like we were preparing for this. Looking back, I can see how much effort went into the planning and process of winning the Rugby World Cup. This is not a matter of one year. You have four years to get things right. The planning on the part of the staff and management was phenomenal.
Both Smith and Kahui have since retired. There are new custodians of their famous black jerseys and a new legacy to be written. The next two weeks will show whether they have a record fourth Rugby World Cup and another glorious chapter in All Black history in the pages of their own black books.
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