The enduring mystique of the All Blacks

The haka has style, ferocity and history and has been linked to New Zealand rugby since 1888.
The haka has style, ferocity and history and has been linked to New Zealand rugby since 1888.PHOTO: REUTERS

There is no parallel of a nation so tiny dominating a world game in team sports

"Excuse me, mate. You got any All Blacks memorabilia?"

The shop manager looked at me as if I'd asked for his sister's hand in marriage. We were standing in the merchandise shop at Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg. It was 1996, a year after Nelson Mandela wore a Springbok jersey and South Africa beat New Zealand to win a rugby World Cup so historic that John Carlin turned it into a book called Playing The Enemy, which Clint Eastwood made into the film Invictus.

And yet here I was, unimpressed, asking for an All Black jersey. As Nadal would say: "Courage, no?"

Blame it on a girl. The woman I loved in the late 1980s was in love with the All Blacks. So were her three rugby-playing brothers who medicated bruises with beer.

The All Blacks are to rugby what no other team is to nothing else. More than the Yankees to baseball, the West Indies to cricket, maybe even Brazil, which by one account has won 613 of 971 matches for a 63.13 winning percentage, to football. Soccer is a more widely competitive sport but Brazil has lost its style and, with the 7-1 defeat by Germany last year, also its mojo. Yellow mystique has faded, all black has not.

Their sport was foreign - hookah I knew but haka? The names they prayed to - Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Grant Fox - were unknown. They'd hunt for videos of the All Blacks and watch with awe. So did I and it was telling: even to this corner of Kolkata, in a no-Internet, no-cable TV time, 11,000km from Auckland, the myth of the All Blacks had travelled.

This is the magnetism of the extraordinary team, its reach knows no borders. This is how you fall in love with a foreign sport, simply by chance. This is the allure of great art, its nuances need not be understood to be appreciated.

You need not be educated in brushwork to admire Van Gogh's Sunflowers nor grasp the complexity of ballet to savour Mikhail Baryshnikov. And no degree in rugby was required to recognise the All Blacks' beauty.

At their best they resembled a rising, rushing pod of killer whales out on a hunt, all connected to the same idea. When they passed, stepped, feinted, surged, some of them they seemed to disprove Frenchman Pierre Danos' presumption that rugby players were either piano players or piano movers. They were both.

For me to watch them back then was akin to a non-footballing person watching Brazil for the first time in 1982: he'd just know, by the ease with which Socrates and Zico moved, the time they had, the control they owned, that these guys are special. No, more than that, you could tell that these guys themselves knew, as Baryshnikov did, that they were special.

Even rugby people, who grew up with the game, could feel the All Blacks' mystique. As Neil Best, who was capped 18 times for Ireland, says: "They were the team everyone wanted to beat. They had an aura."

Best's first glimpse of the mystique came as a boy when Paul Henderson, who captained the All Blacks once, came to his club as a player-coach. "I never saw him throw a bad pass or make a bad tackle. And he was 39, at the end of his career."

Eventually, Best played against the All Blacks in 2006, in New Zealand, his Irish side coming close, losing by only 11 and 10 points. To comprehend what victory would have meant, he says: "I'd never have to work again. It would be free lunches back home forever."

Of course, the All Blacks lose. In seven World Cups, they have won twice, been runner-up once and semi-finalist thrice. They almost have to lose to claim their humanness for they win so much. In 533 Tests, across a century, they have a winning percentage of 76.55.

The All Blacks are to rugby what no other team is to nothing else. More than the Yankees to baseball, the West Indies to cricket, maybe even Brazil, which by one account has won 613 of 971 matches for a 63.13 winning percentage, to football. Soccer is a more widely competitive sport but Brazil has lost its style and, with the 7-1 defeat by Germany last year, also its mojo. Yellow mystique has faded, all black has not.

Rugby is rooted in Kiwi culture and does not - as in England or Australia - have to compete as fiercely with other sports for talent. Even so history offers not a single parallel of a nation so tiny - population less than 5 million - dominating a world game in team sports. For rivals, they must be rugby's version of the Hydra - cut off their fierce heads and they simply produce another generation of greats.

James Forrester, capped twice for England and now owner of the gym UFIT in Singapore, says he often hears people speak proudly of being picked to play for their nation. "But with the All Blacks, it's different. To be picked is not enough, they want to be successful. It's a culture of achievement - not accepting being good and wanting to be great."

Perhaps they feel the obligation that comes with running in famous footsteps: losing, after all, would not merely disappoint fans but aggrieve the ghosts. As Best says: "I get the impression they don't take it lightly, being an All Black. There is a sense of honour and responsibility."

Mystique in sport is complicated, an undefinable brew of magic and mystery. Muhammad Ali owned it, Wayne Gretzky wore it, Ayrton Senna had it. The All Blacks' aura is partly built from a colour usually worn by mambas and panthers. Laughs Best: "They said black makes you look slimmer, but not when it's on those guys."

Mystique is stories of even their captains sweeping the dressing room before they leave. Mystique arrives from the emergence of players like Jonah Lomu, who moved like a wrestler with a Usain Bolt complex. And mystique is also how you commence a game.

Tennis stars do it with a coin toss, footballers with shaken hand, boxers with a stare. No one dares to dance, with bulging eyes and stamping foot, before a game.

The haka is thus culture and cool all in one.

The haka - "a generic name for all Maori dance" states the All Blacks website - has style, ferocity and history for it has been linked to New Zealand rugby since 1888. If it wasn't always done seriously, now it is and sport should be grateful for young men with gelled hair crying out in Maori. In a time of gimmicky, facile entertainment in sports, the All Blacks do not find tradition cumbersome but in fact honour it.

When they start chanting, Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka ora! Ka ora! (I die! I die! I live! I live!), the world watches. A video of their haka in their first game of this Cup has got 16,226,694 views - which only means every Kiwi has seen it at least thrice. Yet even rivals, like Best, say: "It's a nice tradition and great spectacle. I don't think it necessarily intimidates any more. But it lets you know the game is going to be physical."

Mystique eventually survives only if you win enough and this Cup is not a beauty contest, after all, but a technical, tactical one. And as the All Blacks strive to retain the Cup, old foes point out their virtues.

Forrester says "they do whatever it takes to win, which very often means playing a very territorial game". Best insists their "decision-making skill is better than anyone else. They know when to do the right thing at the right time. They know, 'we're better'. They understand their aura."

So did the South African shopkeeper back in 1996. His nation held the Cup, but he knew that mystique was owned by the All Blacks. And so a few days later, with unforgettable kindness, he found me a few All Blacks ties and shot glasses.

Two days ago, I called one of my brothers-in-law, Des, in Melbourne. Nineteen years have passed and he still has one of those ties. It's in his cupboard, hanging above an All Blacks shirt. He bought that in 2009 but has worn it only once. "You can't wear it all the time," he explained. "It's not just any other shirt."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'The enduring mystique of the All Blacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe