islanders

Words: Phil Lutton

Photography: Derek Henderson

You don’t have to be good to make it this far. “Good” gets you a club game on a Sunday, hauling yourself around a muddy rugby field chasing fading dreams. Good gets you a pat on the back. Be good on your own time. To be here, among this group of handpicked young men, you have to be right; not only blessed in talent but also sound of mind, humble in character, and deeply aware of the expectations that go hand-in-hand with a jet-black jersey and a silver fern.

It begins on the high school fields of Aotearoa, from Taranaki to Auckland, from Canterbury and Otago to Manawatu and Waikato. From there, under the eye of the scouts, boys are identified, examined, refined, and chaperoned through their late teens as unscathed as possible, then whittled down until 28 players remain.

It is this squad that is trusted with winning the World Rugby U20 Championship, an annual tournament of growing prestige that features the best rising talent the code can muster. The main game here is to create future All Blacks, players who can elevate, nourish, and advance New Zealand’s mighty national team.

It is a ravenous beast.

To understand the value of the Under 20s program in the context of New Zealand rugby, you must first understand the value of rugby in the context of New Zealand.

_DSC5724cropATo say it is the national game, as baseball is to America or football to England, would be to sell short the cultural, emotional, and even political implications of a sport that indulgingly refers to itself as “the game they play in heaven.” It shouldn’t be confused with rugby league, a 13-man version of the 15-man game that is more popular in nearby Australia but a downtrodden cousin back across the ditch.

Rugby pervades much of New Zealand life and rules the autumn and winter unchallenged. In summer, the sporting populace of the Shaky Isles feigns interest in a recently resurgent cricket team (the Black Caps), all the while counting down the sleeps until the first meaningful scrum takes shape for the coming season.

Schoolboy rugby is serious business, with houses of learning trading heavily on their status as strongholds of the code. From there, the more outstanding talents can begin the trek toward competitions like the domestic ITM Cup (now called the Mitre 10 Cup) and the Super Rugby competition, which spans New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and, as of 2016, Argentina and Japan (Super Rugby is the weekly professional competition in the Southern Hemisphere, with the best players then representing their countries in internationals, known as Test matches).

At the top sits the All Blacks, a rugby and corporate conglomerate that devours all in its path. Its players, like recently retired captain Sir Richie _DSC9336gradedMcCaw, are near mythical creatures, revered as if born unto this Earth free of sin. There is no escape. When you take your seat on an Air New Zealand flight, it will be a video of rapping All Blacks who deliver your safety instructions. If they walk with a certain amount of swagger, there is a very good reason: they almost never lose.

Since they won their second Rugby World Cup in 2011, the All Blacks went on to win 51 of their next 54 Test matches, including the 2015 World Cup final against Australia’s Wallabies. With openside flanker McCaw the spiritual beacon, the team is regarded as the finest ever assembled on a rugby field. Their staggering record against top-flight company makes them one of the truly great contemporary global teams across any sport.

Dominance to this extent is not viewed in New Zealand as a generational quirk. This is not a bubble expected to quiver and burst; the process that fossicks for next level talent has never been as intricate, important, and well funded.

“Our preparations are very deep. Much deeper than they’ve ever been,” says Scott Robertson, the head coach of the Under 20 side and a former All Black himself. “It is about making All Blacks—simple as that. It is a pathway to see if these guys can perform on a high stage.” Robertson is regarded as a future Super Rugby coach,_DSC8833 yet his place in the roadmap of New Zealand rugby has become more vital than ever. “We found out as much as we could about the players. We had a trial camp and then a Test series, so we got to see them on tour playing under pressure. What we have done well, especially in the past two years, is we believe we got our selection right.”

Since the U20s became a singular concept in 2008, merging the U19s and U21s program into one entity, the statistics show it is serving its purpose with clinical precision. It has spawned more than 20 recent or current All Blacks, while some 80 percent of players that go through the U20s program end up furthering their rugby careers. Last year alone, 24 of the 28 were offered contracts with Super Rugby franchises.

Putting a fine edge on rugby skills is only one part of the job for Robertson and his coaching team. For those who aspire to one day become an All Black, learning the identity and expected behaviors are paramount, as is respecting the cultures and backgrounds that have merged to help New Zealand become the undisputed kingpin of the sport.

The evolution of rugby has been rapid since the influx of Pacific Islanders began to take it to new levels of physical prowess. Fast, muscular, skillful, and driven, the young men from islands like Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji have set the game ablaze. With limited opportunity in their smaller nations, many have come to New Zealand for the chance to be exposed to the best schools and coaching, and potentially find a way into the All Blacks program.

That dominance at the junior levels of the game has now seen players of Pacific Islander heritage form the majority of successive U20 squads, campaigning alongside those whose lineage is Maori (the native New Zealanders) or Pakeha (a Maori word that refers to Kiwis descended from European stock).

That sort of over-representation has become commonplace in rugby circles, even if Pacific Islanders represent only around seven percent of New Zealand’s population, and Maori around 14 percent. And with those communities likely to suffer from higher crime rates and less access to healthcare and education, the importance of producing high-quality role models has become paramount. The national teams, in that case, have become vital accompaniments to the greater melting pot, microcosms of how integration and collaboration can and should operate._DSC7831graded

In between the brown and white skins, many covered in traditional tattoos, are shades of grey. Many of the Polynesians are from families who see themselves dually as Samoan, for instance, and New Zealanders. They will proudly sing the national anthem, and belt out the iconic haka, a spine-tingling ancestral Maori war cry that has become one of the most famous pregame rituals in sport.

The All Blacks gather before kick-off as the opposing side typically lock arms to meet the ritual challenge. Such is the perceived psychological benefit to the All Blacks that more than one coach or columnist has campaigned for it to be banned on account of offering an unfair advantage. They thunder through the moves of the original Ka Mate haka or more recently, the Kapa o Pango haka, unveiled in 2005 to better reflect the Pacific Island influence of contemporary New Zealand, and by extension its rugby teams.

Harmony within the group is manicured just as carefully as football matters like scrummaging or defensive patterns. As part of the intensive work off the field, players are continually taught to respect and embrace the meeting of cultures, says Mike Anthony, a high-performance expert who oversees the U20s program.

“More recently in this team the representation has been higher toward Pacific Island boys than Maori, so that balance is very important,” Anthony says. “They play under one flag and we sing the national anthem in English and Maori. But there is always acknowledgment of our cultures, and we often theme a campaign around cultural components. That’s very important. The mix of the group is year-to-year, but it’s always something we observe and it is just part of the fabric of this team.”

For Robertson, that blending of backgrounds has not only become a powerful learning tool but a force that can be captured, cultured, and translated into the strongest of team bonds, which in turn manifests on the rugby field.

_DSC8361bw“There’s a very strong mix and a strong awareness of people’s backgrounds and traditions. The key is how to get that buy-in, how to get real understanding,” Robertson says. “You have to be aware and respect other people’s beliefs. Front and center to that is a team mentality, so you harness and promote that diversity. We have very clear expectations and standards. We talk about culture. We talk about how you behave, how you connect with people, how you have good conversations, real conversations. We make sure people are treated with respect.”

Part of that cultural education comes from those who have trod the path before, like former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga (whose parents were Samoan immigrants to New Zealand), who retired in 2005 and is now coach of the Blues, Auckland’s Super Rugby team. McCaw has also been involved with the U20s program, offering his peerless advice to the next generation of players.

It's a substantial brief for a coach like Robertson, who is trying to produce well-rounded men on one hand and merciless rugby assassins on the other. Central to it all is the march toward this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship, to be held in June in Manchester, England.

After winning the first four crowns, New Zealand had the distinctly surreal feeling of finishing second, third, and fourth from 2012 to 2014, before returning to the winner’s circle in 2015 with victory over England. Given the momentum with which New Zealand rugby now rolls, it would take a brave man to bet against them.

Already, 370 U20s players have risen to play Test rugby since the foundation tournament in 2008. Robertson and Anthony hope they can add to that tally. But the candidates must be right, not just good. “I think that’s the massive difference with this program,” says Anthony. “We don’t only want good rugby players. We want excellent people.”