On the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, New Zealand are firm favourites. But what makes them so good? Grant Woodward reports.
BETTER, NOT BIGGER
This Rugby World Cup has highlighted a growing gap between the northern and southern hemispheres.
Not a single European side made it to the semi-finals and New Zealand and Australia, who will contest tomorrow’s final at Twickenham, are the tournament’s stand-out teams.
So why is a team like New Zealand seemingly brimming with talent when they have just a fraction of the playing numbers of England?
“Success in sport is complex and dynamic, although history would tell us that there are key characteristics a team needs to succeed at the highest level,” says Dr Ben Jones, a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, and also Head of Academy Athletic Development at Leeds Rhinos Rugby League club and Yorkshire Carnegie Rugby Union club.
“Research has shown that a higher proportion of later maturing players from an elite system – such as an academy – progress to the professional ranks in comparison to early maturing players who stand out at a young age, often because they are bigger.
“Typically, the bigger and stronger player may get challenged less and as a result fail to develop psychological ‘toughness’ or skills, which are developed to a greater extent in the smaller, later developing player.
“The World Cup final is a product of the grass roots game. New Zealand are well known for their ‘weight category’ youth rugby playing programme, whereby players are grouped based on their weight and not age.
“As such, there is no real advantage for the ‘big kid’, therefore they need to develop other attributes, such as higher skill levels, and this may be why New Zealand appear to be the most skilful team in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.”
A BAND OF BROTHERS
Australian coach Michael Cheika has said the collective spirit of his side – and the different personalities within it – have been the key to them reach tomorrow’s final.
Rather than suppressing character and free-thinking, this Wallabies squad have consciously gone the other way – a contrast to the perceived regimentalised nature of Stuart Lancaster’s England.
“We’ve got the jokers, the lovers, the fighters,” said Cheika. “I really like to have lots of different characters in teams, people who think differently about everything. I won’t say we’ve got the extreme right but we’ve got the extreme left and centre right in the way we think.”
But while getting the right blend of personalities is important, the All Blacks’ trump card is their shared experience over many years of dominance within the sport.
The statistics bear this out too. The number of caps held by the Rugby World Cup-winning teams of Australia (1999), England (2003), South Africa (2007) and New Zealand (2011) was 622, 638, 668 and 709 for Graham Henry’s All Blacks, the most experienced of the quartet.
“Research suggests that one of the key determinants of success within team sports is ‘collective experience’,” says Ben. This is often how World Cups are won.
“The best recent example of collective experience is the Leeds Rhinos Rugby League team, who this season have won every domestic piece of silverware available.
“A core of that team have come through the club’s academy system together earlier in their career. They lost together and now they know how to win together.
“This is clear when you watch them close out the tightest of games. The individual leadership qualities in combination with the collective experience is when a team would start to succeed, which may determine the outcome of Saturday’s fixture.”
While England’s World Cup victory in 2003 was on the back of some fine team performances, in the end the winning margin came down to Jonny Wilkinson’s sweetly struck drop goal deep into extra time.
One of the principal reasons why New Zealand are 9/4 on favourites to win tomorrow and once again lift the Web Ellis Cup.
“Within the sport of rugby, individual brilliance can win competitions – the exceptionally skilled Kevin Sinfield for Leeds Rhinos, Jonny Wilkinson scoring the winning drop goal for England in 2003,” says Ben.
“Therefore the battle for perfect performance between New Zealand’s Dan Carter and Australia’s Bernard Foley may determine the outcome of the World Cup final.
“Another key match-up is between the two outstanding open side flanker in world rugby right now – Richie McCaw for the All Blacks and David Pocock for the Wallabies.
“Posession of the ball is key to winning rugby matches. That will be the job of McCaw and Pocock, and whoever wins that battle can expect to see their team clinch the trophy.
“But then it’s also up to Carter and Foley as fly halves to turn that possession into points. Given that he is the best in the world in that position, Dan Carter tilts it the All Blacks’ way.
“The perfect performance would include exceptional skill execution, built on the back of hours of deliberate practice within a high pressure environment.”
BUT IT’S A TEAM GAME
Within a team sport, individual excellence is without a doubt a necessity, but not at the expense of team excellence. The outcome of the Rugby World Cup final is more likely to be decided by the latter than the former.
“Collective team performance, inclusive of the back room staff too, as opposed to individual brilliance is often what makes the difference,” says Ben.
“History would suggest that teams with stable management structures are more likely to be more successful. Manchester United during the Alex Ferguson era are a prime example of that.
“It could prove telling that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has been involved with his side for 11 years as opposed to Michael Cheika’s 12 months in charge of Australia.
“Within professional sport all players are exceptional athletes and skilled within their sport. What makes the elite differ from the world class is what is known within sporting circles as their ‘super power’ – something they excel at beyond all others.
“This may be leadership, strength, speed, skill – something that makes them different. Physiologically, we know players can’t be good at everything. For instance, your fittest players are unlikely to be your most powerful.
“Selecting a team with complementary ‘super powers’, alongside their collective experience, is the key to success. That is what a team like the All Blacks have been doing for decades – and why it would be a surprise not to see them lifting the Web Ellis Cup tomorrow evening.”