Rugby World Cup
All Blacks own rugby in a way no other sports team ever could
Simon Barnes
October 19, 2015
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New Zealand are not only the world's leading rugby nation. They also own the game. They do so because people are prepared to buy into the All Black myth. This is a useful advantage to take into the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup. On Saturday night they beat France so completely that it seemed that myth and reality were finally reconciled.

Against France they really looked as if they were playing a game that no one else in the world was capable of understanding, still less emulating. What's more, it wasn't about exceptional individuals, despite performances of startling ability from Dan Carter and Julian Savea.

No, here was the New Zealand rugby team fully realised -- the brand as star. The All Black corporate identity was what stayed in the memory after a performance that was within hailing distance of sporting perfection. For the record, the final score was New Zealand 63, France 13.

But then there has never been a suggestion that France own the game. New Zealand have been able to do that across the years. It dates back to their tour of the United Kingdom, France and North America in 1905-6, in which they played 35 times and lost just once, and for the first time they were called All Blacks.

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The distinctive team uniform is a primordial and brilliant piece of branding. Their nickname is used almost as often as the name of nation, slavishly, sycophantically. These days coaches are more inclined to make their teams talk only about "New Zealand", in an attempt to deny the opposition their mystique. Nice idea but that horse bolted a long time ago.

New Zealand get special privileges, like the right to perform a morale-boosting war dance before their matches -- as do a number of the Pacific nations. I once asked readers about counter-hakaing; the best suggestion was that England perform the hokey-cokey, or perhaps a spot of Morris dancing. But that wouldn't be accepted because you have to "respect" the haka.

© Stu Forster/Getty Images

There is a feeling in rugby that if New Zealand do it, it must be right. Their edgework around the fringes of the law gets more sympathy from referees than similar efforts of other nations. The classic example is the spear tackle on Brian O'Driscoll, the British & Irish Lions captain. This was performed in 2005 by the New Zealand captain, Tama Umaga, with the willing assistance of Keven Mealamu. Between them they dislocated O'Driscoll's shoulder and ended his participation in the tour. Nice tactic. The Lions lost their best player, New Zealand went unpunished and they still deny that there was anything untoward going on.

But that's because they own the game. That has an effect on opponents, administrators, referees, supporters, pundits and journalists. New Zealand are not just as better than everyone else, they're also more important. Being New Zealand is what other nations aspire to.

And when they come up with performances like Saturday night's, it all seems real and necessary. The mythology is refurbished -- and we who watch sport are deeply taken with the idea of the very special team, a team that goes on and on, changing personnel, changing managers and coaches, but forever imposing the long tradition of excellence on the world.

It crops up in other sports, though seldom to the same extent. Brazil somehow still have it in football. It seemed they really did own the game when they won three World Cups between 1958 and 1970; English readers may well spot the year they missed out.

The notion of sublimely skilled Brazilians playing the jogo bonito that they learned on Copacabana beach still echoes across the world, and it's nonsense. The Brazilian national team haven't played like that for four decades and beach football is, in Brazil as anywhere else, a soft game for dilettantes. Brazilians learn football in tough leagues on hard pitches. Likewise, the idea that Pele was capable of spiteful tackles is seen as a kind of blasphemy, but it's the truth.

Real Madrid -- the All Whites, if you like, note that a distinctive kit really helps in creating a mystique -- had a similar kind of dominance in European club football, winning the first five European Cups between 1956 and 1960. Football is a much bigger game than rugby, and domination is harder to sustain, but Real Madrid still have mystique. They may not own the game anymore but they are substantial shareholders.

Manchester United managed the same thing under Sir Alex Ferguson, at least domestically. But they failed to make that work consistently in Europe and failed to take it beyond Ferguson's retirement, which goes to show how hard it is to sustain dominance.

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Australia have managed it on and off in cricket. They held a moral and statistical dominance of the game from 1989 to 2005, notably under the captaincy of Steve Waugh. Waugh was a great exploiter of the brand. He was mad about the "baggy green", the distinctive cap Australians wear. He consciously worked on mystique, for example, refusing to permit his batsmen to use a runner and never called for a nightwatchman, because such things "showed weakness".

The New York Yankees possess the same sort of mystique in baseball, putting together successive World Series wins in 1936-39, 1949-54 and 1998-2000, 27 all told. They established themselves as a team that had a right to win. They too have distinctive kit, playing in pinstripes.

Dallas Cowboys -- who dubbed themselves divisively "America's Team" -- made a bold bid to do the same thing but were thwarted by the benign socialism of the NFL. In this system, the first draft pick goes to the team that finished last and all merchandising revenues shares equally, so it is increasingly difficult to establish a lasting hegemony.

But New Zealand have done so in rugby and they go and on; a great black shark in the comparatively small pond of international rugby. In Cardiff, they put on a performance to make believers of us all.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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