This article first appeared on the Al Jazeera English website on November 25th, 2013.
Attempts to break the aura surrounding New Zealand’s rugby union team are doomed to fail as All Blacks legend rolls on.
By Paul Rhys
You can say their name or you can refuse to say it, but the All Blacks will still be there.
Ireland prop Cian Healy said in the buildup to his team’s rugby union Test against New Zealand on Sunday that he does not refer to them as the All Blacks because it puts them “on a pedestal”.
But when New Zealand were rampaging forward, five points down to the hosts in injury time, it was probably uppermost in Irish minds that this was an All Blacks team they were trying to defend against.
It ended heartbreakingly, and inevitably, with Ryan Crotty levelling the scores with a try, and then Aaron Cruden kicking the conversion to deny Ireland a first win over New Zealand in 109 years of trying. The record reads 27 Tests, 26 defeats, one draw.
Healy is probably right though. The aura around the world champions – cultivated long before they won the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time in 2011 – is only increased by everyone’s insistence on calling them by what has become more than a nickname.
The problem for Healy and everybody else is that it’s far too late to change how the world sees the New Zealand team. An even bigger problem is that, in the last two years, the All Blacks have lived up to the hype. You could call them the All-Glittery Lollipop Kings and they’d still beat you 19 times out of 20.
Or make that 14 times out of 14. The 24-22 victory over Ireland in Dublin made this team the only one to win all of their Tests in a calendar year since the sport went professional nearly 20 years ago.
Healy’s no-nickname policy is a way of trying to ensure that his team is not beaten in their own minds before or during the match.
But deliberately not calling them the All Blacks has the same effect as doing so. It brings a they-who-must-not-be-named quality to the team. You really can’t win.
It’s easy to see how the world got so in awe of New Zealand.
You only have to go to the country, for a start, to know what rugby means there.
Then you have to imagine the best Kiwi players leaving home in the 1950s and 60s for months of touring to the furthest reaches of the globe, places that for some of them were the mother countries of Scotland, England or Wales – and which for others were totally new territory to be conquered.
Not only did New Zealand bring their quality of play and their striking black uniforms, but they brought with them players who were an awe-inspiring sight in towns where multiculturalism had yet to be invented.
The Maori reputation as a warrior race is no accident, and when they put on that already-famous shirt and were unleashed against the local full-back in Caerphilly, that reputation was only going to become meshed within the fabric of the team.
One such player was Waka Nathan, dubbed “the Black Panther” after mauling defences on tours of Great Britain in the 1960s.
Strangely enough, it’s people like Nathan, now 73, who can perhaps do the best job of breaking the spell created by the All Blacks.
When I interviewed him at his home in Auckland two years ago, before the World Cup final against France, he said that rugby meant no more to New Zealanders than it did to those in love with the game anywhere else.
He also said he’d have been more than happy to play for England or any other team, like many Pacific Islanders do now – especially given the financial rewards on offer.
We can’t know what would happen if everyone stopped believing in the mythology of the All Blacks, because no matter how much we try, players like Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Richie McCaw are going to be more than the sum of their parts when they wear that black shirt.
The only answer is to enjoy it. Believe in the legend, believe in the greatness of the players doing the haka as the adrenaline pumps through the veins of the nervous opposition. Be glad that there’s a team like this to make the sport more than a sport.
It will make it all the sweeter when you finally beat them. And if that wasn’t a great thing to achieve, what would be the point in trying for 109 years?