Try harder! What I learned from the All Blacks rugby team.

Picture the scene…

A rain-soaked, windswept rugby pitch in the middle of rural Suffolk. It’s 12:30pm on a Saturday and a skinny teenage player is out on the pitch without a team or a crowd. The only other person there is his coach. It’s a freezing cold winter’s day and the wind blows the goal posts.


The player is rehearsing moves, shaping into certain positions; running, standing, kicking and catching the ball as it’s kicked to him by the coach – who’s in continuous communication with the player. Close by, he’s asking him questions and shouting random sets of numbers. As he runs away he’s pointing and waving to direct him to the next part of the pitch. It’s all a bit surreal.

The coach was a New Zealander called John Phillips or ‘Phil’ as he was known. The teenager was I. The year was 1989 and I played for Sudbury Rugby Club, which had a heavy New Zealand influence; we had 2 ex-All Blacks in the 1XV; Terry Wright and Albert Anderson as well as a number of young, talented club players. This was part of an exchange programme developed a year earlier by the club.

In the scene I describe above, the coach was talking me through possible scenarios that might happen in the game…
Where would the opposition be?
Where would my team be?
Where would the kick land – off the left or right foot?
Where would I be positioned if there were a scrum, lineout or ruck?
What would the opposition expect me to do?
What would they not expect me to do?
What would happen in the 2nd half when the wind was going the other way?

I think Phil wanted to make sure my attitude was right, that I’d considered certain scenarios and could make decisions and play with ‘vision’ (his favourite word) – whatever was in front of me. We’d also speak about what was I thinking and feeling about the game ahead. He used to constantly reinforce positive messages to the team and I: trusting your skills, trusting the decisions, the team ethos, and the set-plays. He placed an emphasis on personal performance and a culture that was team based, helping us settle the nerves and focus on the game.

This shows that even back then, New Zealand rugby was streets ahead of anywhere else. Don’t forget that this was a full 6 years before rugby turned into a professional sport. The approach I experienced at the club was different to what I’d been used to…

For example:

At training, all team members practice all skills. Every drill, even fitness and conditioning session, we carried the ball everywhere. This was unheard of.

On match day, when teams shouted and stamped their feet before leaving the changing room, our changing room fell silent minutes before kick-off. This intimidated teams.

On the pitch the intensity of the New Zealand players was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. They were fitter, faster, stronger and more committed. Even when I threw a crappy pass, they caught it!

Very quickly, the club I was playing for became successful – gaining promotion to National League 4 at the time. The coaching methods and styles of play began to be noticed. I played at the club for another 2 years before setting off for London to begin my career in advertising.

Later in 2015, the New Zealand All Blacks win a record third Rugby World Cup. No surprise there. Statistically, they’re the most successful team in the history of sport, let alone rugby. A win rate of 75% over the last 100 years is amazing. The All Blacks have a saying ‘leave the jersey in a better place’ so there’s an ethos of excellence baked into a successful legacy – which means they’ll be good for another 100 years.

For me, it’s easy to see why they are so good (I’m afraid to say they’re are so much better than any team that you’ll see in the 2016 RBS Six Nations Championship). The All Blacks for me, have always been the ultimate team and I was lucky enough to experience tiny glimpses of rugby New Zealand style – albeit here in the UK. I do admit that I sometimes boast that I played alongside 2 All Blacks. Truth is, I was awful, and they weren’t. So what is it about New Zealand rugby players that make them so good?

TCD_rugby_high res final

For me I’d pick 2 things that differentiate New Zealand rugby:

1. Skills. New Zealand rugby places an emphasis on ‘basic skills’. The All Blacks are frequently famed for not dropping a ball – such is the focus on skills. From 1 to 15, every All Black team member has an amazing set of skills. New Zealand rugby places an emphasis on ‘basic skills’. The All Blacks are frequently famed for not dropping a ball – such is the focus on skills. From 1 to 15, every All Black team member has an amazing set of skills.

Yes the big fellas can do the technical things such as scrummage, maul and ruck but they can also throw a great pass, sidestep and kick a ball. Once learned, the skills are practiced meticulously. Look at a player like Kieran Read. 6’4” and 17 stone, he’s big and powerful but has ball-handling skills that make him one of the classiest players in world rugby. Ex-All Black Dan Carter, arguably the greatest Fly Half ever, had a set of goalposts built in his garden so he could practice his kicking. Relentless honing of skills runs deep in the DNA of New Zealand rugby.

2. Attitude. This is a word I’ve heard used frequently by Kiwi rugby fans. In England we might simply say ‘he’s a great player – really strong’ etc. etc. Whereas Kiwis would say ‘he’s got a great attitude’. They already know that he’ll have great skills – that’s a given (see above) but what marks-out a special player in their eyes, is what’s in their head and heart and how that benefits the team. Perhaps Richie McCaw, recently retired All Black captain is the obvious example here but it’s impossible not to mention the great man himself, Jonah Lomu, who died tragically in November 2015 of a kidney illness. He was only 40. He was very big – 6’5” and over 18 stone. He could run fast, 100m – 10.8 secs, had great footwork and ball-handling skills. And although capable of beating teams singled-handedly (literally), he was typically a team man. His attitude to the illness that ultimately took his life was testament to him as a person.

So what can we learn from New Zealand rugby and take into the world of work? Well there’s a great book written by James Kerr called ‘Legacy’ and I’d encourage you to read it, even if you aren’t a rugby fan. Here’s the Amazon link.

For what it’s worth, here’s what my early experiences (rugby-based or otherwise) taught me when I started work in advertising:

  1. Genuine skills count and must be practiced, honed and retrained (the creative industry has a poor record in on-going training and developing doesn’t it?)
  2. Your attitude is hugely important to your success – individually and part of a wider team (right or wrong, I always go for attitude first and talent second).
  3. Being professional doesn’t mean you can’t be creative (Missed deadlines, poor client relationships and shoddy work is not professional).
  4. Good skills and a great attitude give you the confidence to tackle much of what comes your way.