Monday Maul
'New Zealand has some fundamental advantages' - CEO Steve Tew on why All Blacks are the team to beat
Tom Hamilton
November 24, 2014
© Getty Images

"You don't have to have the best dog, just the right dog," was All Blacks coach Steve Hansen's response to the inevitable question concerning their World Cup prospects after an unbeaten November series. It was another trip north where they were asked questions but answered with increased physicality, focus and - inevitably - wins. It is the hope that kills you, as England and Wales have found out against the world's best side but as the World Cup ticks ever closer, it will be the All Blacks who head into the final sprint as the tall poppies.

On Saturday, not only were the All Blacks crowned the world's best side but Brodie Retallick had bestowed on him the honour of being named World Rugby's Player of the Year. Son of a man named Patch and with a nickname Guzzler, Retallick is an accidental hero. In Twelfth Night, when Malvolio is reading Maria's letter, the following sentence seems wonderfully appropriate: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." For the All Blacks, the view is there is no divine right to becoming a New Zealand international but it is the ultimate goal: collective greatness.

Sitting in the Cardiff stands on Saturday presiding over another successful tour was Hansen. In the view of Steve Tew, the New Zealand Rugby Union's chief executive, he "is the best coach in world rugby and the numbers stack up". While Ireland are in the midst of a renaissance under Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, in Tew's mind Hansen is not the sole motivator behind New Zealand's relentless pursuit for excellence. Instead, it is all part of a melting pot of success.

New Zealand's Rugby Union CEO Steve Tew, November 5, 2014
NZRU CEO Steve Tew © Getty Images

"There are some fundamental advantages New Zealand has," Tew told ESPN. "There are a range of physiques in the country now that lend themselves to rugby. There are the Europeans who came from pretty hard stock, you have the Polynesian factor with pace and power and the indigenous population, the Maoris, who have contributed significantly to our game.

"The raw materials are good and sometimes success builds on success. Right from the get-go, the original New Zealand team was a good side and won a lot of games and that expectation of winning is continuing, the legacy the guys feel the weight of is important. Also, rugby is played in school and Victor Vito was throwing those sorts of passes when he was five years old [referring to his round-the-back pass to Julian Savea for their final try against the USA Eagles in Chicago].

"We live in a good climate, a safe country and largely every kid has access to some open space. The education system encourages rugby and we have a good coaching structure. Teams don't win unless they're well coached and we have good domestic competitions. We have a captain [Richie McCaw] who has played 137 Test matches and lost 14 so he has played a high percentage of New Zealand's Tests. He sets demands and meets incredibly high standards all the time so you throw all of that into a pot and it pops out a 76.3% winning record over 100 years or 86% over the professional era."

In other words, it is a blueprint teams can attempt to emulate but not replicate. For the All Blacks, McCaw is the benchmark. When he first arrived at Crusaders training as a fresh-faced teenager, senior players Todd Blackadder, Reuben Thorne, Scott Robertson and Angus Gardiner spoke to Hansen about their frustration with McCaw. They were threatening to "snot" him as he was pilfering so much ball off them. The response from Hansen was: "'If you snot him I will be snotting the lot of you, so leave him alone. He's only a baby, just look after him and get there quicker than he is'."

There are no hidden, mystical powers McCaw possesses, neither was he born with that intrinsic ability to turn the ball over in his DNA. But New Zealand, as a country, is geared towards rugby in Tew's mind.

"I went for a walk in downtown Auckland and there were thousands wearing All Blacks jerseys, which New Zealanders haven't traditionally done. I turned to my wife and said 's***, this is actually going to work'"

"It's important your kids get the confidence to run, throw, catch and pass," Tew said. "In New Zealand that's easy to do because the environment and quality of life encourages that. If you want to be the best you can be then you have to do what Richie does and you have to put yourself in the pain barrier and the best frame of mind to train and prepare. He hasn't played 137 Tests because he sits on his backside enjoying the reflections on what he's doing but he's doing what he did when he was 19 years old."

It has not always been a tale of such success. When Tew took over as CEO of the NZRU, it was in the wake of their World Cup quarter-final loss to France in 2007. But there was no panic, no off-the-cuff cull but a faith in the system. In June of this year, while New Zealand hosted England for their three-Test series, Tew kept one eye on the football World Cup in Brazil. One of the stories was the Spain capitulation; from record breakers to a team who fell apart. The cautionary tales are there and are a reminder against complacency.

"I did watch the World Cup with some interest but this is where the coach earns his money," Tew says. "He has to be comfortable that he has the right balance of experience and fresh legs. Time will tell if we have the balance right.

"We have players who still want to be playing but they had to be told it was time for them to move on. One-off tournaments are difficult assignments. And if we strike the right balance between having the right guys who have youth and the required x-factor to break open games and do the job alongside the guys who have been there for a while and deal with the ugly hard crap then we will be in good shape. Other teams have the same challenges - South Africa have Victor [Matfield]. What I'm more confident about is that we have some depth."

New Zealand's Richie McCaw prepares for the hit from Taulupe Faletau, Wales v New Zealand, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, November 22, 2014
Richie McCaw - the centurion captain © Getty Images

That depth does come at a price. Teams the world over are keen to sign an All Black. "The biggest thing we can't control is that our talent is world class and highly sought after," Tew said. "And therefore in an open market our guys can be tempted to do other stuff.

"We can control some things so if you don't stay and play in New Zealand then you don't wear this jersey. We've created an environment the guys don't want to leave. Part of it is a consequence of how many games the guys play, we didn't have one centurion in 2011 and since the World Cup, we've had half a dozen and three or four heading towards it so that demonstrates we have created an environment while the guys have created an inner-sanctum. The guys are good mates and they trust each other and they play for each other while delivering for each other."

The last mention of the 'brothers in arms' mentality was epitomised in the 2011 World Cup final. The ridiculous situation that saw Stephen Donald, an individual wearing a shirt two sizes too small, nailing the World Cup-winning kick is a memory Tew holds close alongside others which define New Zealand rugby.

"There isn't a single moment but my reflections are too many. I've been spoilt and privileged to have experienced so much stuff but if you think about the World Cup final, if you'd said to someone 'put money on Tony Woodcock to score a try and Stephen Donald to kick the only kick' then people would've given you odds of ridiculous dimensions.

"The Prime Minister picked the week for elections so that it didn't clash with a rugby Test. Most countries do that the other way around."

"Probably the two moments that really sit for me are outside of the matches. The big moment for me in the World Cup was on the Friday afternoon before kick-off against Tonga I went for a walk in downtown Auckland with my wife and there were thousands of people all wearing All Blacks jerseys, which New Zealanders haven't traditionally done, and I turned to Michelle and said 's***, this is actually going to work'. The whole of Auckland was packed. There were hundreds of thousands of people who didn't have tickets but were enjoying the moment. And then watching the way New Zealand celebrated the win was pretty special. I think we taught Bill [the World Cup trophy] a few things he hasn't been taught before."

The goal is to be in possession of 'Bill' again come October 31. The recent trip to America, while a commercial success, was also put together with one eye on the World Cup. The scars of 2007 are still worn in some respect; there is no desire to be in that position again as Tew emphasises. "If we don't get the quarter-final then as we know ... well you're not on the plane because you haven't booked the bloody thing and you're sitting at the airport trying to get seats for the players to get home."

Other than the unpredictability of the World Cup, Tew does not see any red flags on the horizon though there is a constant balancing act he has to strike between the needs of commercialising the All Blacks while prioritising player welfare first.

Dave Gallaher, London, 1905
The legacy of Dave Gallaher's side lives on ©

"You have to strike a balance or else in the end you'll destroy both," Tew said. "If you don't look after your players then the performance is compromised and the commercial plan doesn't work. I think we have a good alignment between our board, the senior management and the team and we are as one on most things. Ultimately once we commit to something we do it together and we listen closely to what the players and coaches tell us. One of our competitive advantages is the senior guys, they have the whole game at heart and we can have honest and robust conversations about our relationships and agreements."

While Tew can control the commercial side of the business and lays huge praise at the door of adidas, he cannot manipulate the hands of time. McCaw is expected to retire after the World Cup while the majestic Conrad Smith's days are numbered but there are the foundations in place to help fill those sizeable shoes.

"It's hard to have a succession plan for someone who has been dominant in any role in any job in the world. After having a Prime Minister for 12 years there can be a void in that environment. So it is hard to fill the succession plan up so you have guys who are ready to go as they may not have had the experience. Kieran Read will be the All Black captain, he is the captain now and has captained the side a lot. Any other international side, he would be the captain for a couple of years. Someone like Sam Cane is ready and if he belonged to another country he would have 40 or 50 caps but the other guy [McCaw] is still going and he isn't moving and long may that last."

If the All Blacks fall in the next World Cup, it will not be due to lack of planning or naive expectation. They know what happens when they leave Europe early in these global gatherings. For now, they will have a break. To avoid player burnout, the premier All Blacks will not be seen in the opening games of Super Rugby.

You wonder if when captain Dave Gallaher and his 18-strong group of New Zealanders spent 41 days crossing the oceans to Europe to play on that 1905 tour - they have since been labelled the 'Originals' and the tour signifies the foundation of the All Blacks - they would ever imagine the reach the All Blacks have now. It has been an ever evolving process to be the undisputed top dog.

"We work hard," Tew said. "No team can afford to get complacent but the leadership we have in this group ... there is not one reason why we are successful. If you sustain success for a long period of time then you have to be getting a lot of things right. No team performs at this level unless they are well coached. You have to get the right guys on the bus.

"We have a leadership group and a model that seems to work. The jersey brings the best out of every Kiwi that puts it on. It's become part of our cultural and political identity. The Prime Minister picked the week for elections so that it didn't clash with a rugby Test. Most countries do that the other way around. It's pretty special."

© Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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