By virtue of its phenomenal ratio of wins against losses and draws, the All Blacks are the most successful team in sports. The New Zealand rugby public has become so used to their national team beating other nations in test matches that losses are considered too much to take. In reality losing is vital to every enterprise, whether in our personal lives, business or in the sporting arena – in individual and team sports.
Last weekend the All Blacks lost to South Africa in a fantastic contest that truly earned the name a ‘test match’. As happens every time the national team loses, the press and the public look for answers; coaches’ tactics and selections are questioned; players’ performances and choices on the field are held to a higher level of scrutiny. Losing has now become so uncommon that when it happens a great deal of perspective is lost and an opportunity is missed. In truth, losses create more wins and cement an even stronger culture of winning.
“Losing that game established an unimaginable legacy of winning for the next decade. I believe that loss was the best thing that ever happened to the All Blacks. It created leadership throughout the squad and the playing 15. It moulded Richie McCaw into the best captain in modern rugby.”
Few losses are so firmly ingrained in New Zealand rugby history than the one against France in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup in 2007. While the referee, Wayne Barnes was attacked for some rather bizarre decisions, the truth was hard to take – the All Blacks were not good enough, had been outplayed and were without a plan B or the leadership on the field to deal with the pace and innovation of the French. Losing that game established an unimaginable legacy of winning for the next decade. I believe that loss was the best thing that ever happened to the All Blacks. It created leadership throughout the squad and the playing 15. It moulded Richie McCaw into the best captain in modern rugby.
The value of learning from losing cannot be overstated. Winning, especially in sports comes down to leadership, training, and organisation that then creates belief – in the team and the individuals within it and the tactics and conditioning of management and the coaching staff. Losing a hard fought test match – like the one against South Africa – is the best thing that could have happened for the All Blacks ahead of the next Rugby World Cup in Japan. I’d argue that the odd loss before then would be immeasurably beneficial as well.
“We may have the most dominant statistics in World Rugby but until the last seven years, we have underperformed at every World Cup since the one we won at the inaugural competition in 1987.”
Laurie Mains once said that the hardest part of coaching the All Blacks was the public’s expectation that the team would not lose. That then created the fear of losing and worse – the inability to play matches to test players and tactics to forge a winning team for a World Cup. We may have the most dominant statistics in World Rugby but until the last seven years, we have underperformed at every World Cup since the one we won at the inaugural competition in 1987.
“Loss needs to be processed, it can’t be dealt with right away. The value of losing takes time – and it takes the imagination to know what to do with it and where to go with it.”
It’s vital that losses aren’t treated as catastrophes that require radical intervention or changes of philosophy or staff and players. Often a loss requires re-thinking and adjustment. It creates a new level of respect for an opposition and provides lessons for a leadership team to make different decisions in games when an opposition is playing a different game than expected.
There are surely numerous quotes and memes about the value of losing – about learning from set-backs and becoming stronger and more focused. They tend to ignore one vital factor. Losing hurts and we don’t tend to like it. Loss needs to be processed, it can’t be dealt with right away. The value of losing takes time – and it takes the imagination to know what to do with it and where to go with it.
Countless column inches, here and overseas, have pondered over the reasons why the All Blacks are so good and have dominated world rugby for so long. For years before the game became professional, it was argued that the players were conditioned by the manual labour they did in their working life. That fed into the well-established mythology of the Kiwi number 8-wire philosophy. The All Blacks were tougher, harder, fitter, and able to take more and give more on the field. They were innovative and utilised the rules of the game and suited them to how they wanted to play. I’m not sure any of that explains anything but it does feed the popular imagination.
“The myths created about the All Blacks are also helpful to perpetuate the idea that the team is somehow invincible.”
We could argue that because rugby is our national game and kids take it up at a young age, dreaming of one day pulling on the black jersey, that the game is in a great position here. But that’s no different to a country like Wales where the oval ball dominates all other sports. It doesn’t explain why the All Blacks have been so dominant for such a long time.
The myths created about the All Blacks are also helpful to perpetuate the idea that the team is somehow invincible. Often other teams are put off by the aura of the All Blacks, while sometimes the opposite is true – playing the New Zealand rugby team is like a World Cup final – the chance to go head to head for 80 minutes with nothing to lose. Some teams play out of their skins when they play the All Blacks – like a fourth division team playing someone like Liverpool or Manchester United in an FA Cup football game. Every one loves the chance to take down a giant.
I don’t have any firm answers on why New Zealand rugby is streets ahead of every other national team statistically. I think it’s down to a combination of factors and a willingness to learn and adapt and take losses on the chin and become better for them.