Every sports team has an expectation to succeed, but few do like the All Blacks.
The burden of public opinion — as well as the high standards set by the players themselves — can weigh heavily on those representing New Zealand’s rugby team, the top-ranked side in the world for much of the past decade.
“There’s huge public expectation in New Zealand when it comes to representing the All Blacks or even provincial and Super Rugby teams,” fly-half Beauden Barrett recently told CNN Sport.
Barrett, who made his 100th appearance for the All Blacks last month, has been a regular presence in the team since he made his test debut in 2012.
Having grown up idolizing the All Blacks, he’s acutely aware of the scrutiny he and his teammates face in rugby-mad New Zealand.
“Our legacy is a very strong and proud one, and as current players, we want to do our part to leave the jersey in a better place or add value, add to the legacy,” he says.
“Even if we have a good win, our people like to pick it apart and still heavily criticize and that’s the way it is. We have very high standards.”
Those high standards mean the All Blacks are facing difficult questions after a 29-20 loss against Ireland on Saturday. The thrilling contest in Dublin was Ireland’s third win against the Kiwis in the sides’ past five meetings.
It comes after comfortable wins against the USA, Wales and Italy had propelled New Zealand back to the top of the world rankings having ceded the top spot to South Africa, who defeated the All Blacks in the final game of the Rugby Championship earlier this year.
Conquering the ‘fear factor’
The All Blacks next face France in Paris, where they will look to end their northern hemisphere tour on a high.
Ian Foster’s side will be under more pressure than usual after the defeat against Ireland — something the head coach has been helping his players to deal with.
“I think we’ve learned some techniques about how to deal with the expectations,” Foster told CNN Sport.
“Rather than sort of being crushed by it or seeing it as being oppressive, we’re trying to take an approach of getting excited about it.”
He added: “What we can’t do is have players go out there feeling too much of a fear factor that if they stuff up, the world is going to come collapsing on them.
“It’s about enabling them to use the expectations to create a skillset and a way of expressing that they can be really proud of.”
New Zealand’s obsession with rugby — and the period of national mourning that can follow defeats — was exemplified after the All Blacks were knocked out of the Rugby World Cup by England two years ago.
“The All Blacks are out of the World Cup. If you want to read more, go to the sports section,” were the only two lines on the front page of the New Zealand Herald on Sunday after that defeat.
Focus on France
Foster took over from Steve Hansen as the All Blacks head coach after the 2019 World Cup having been an assistant coach since 2012.
His aim as head coach, he says, has been to create an environment that’s “fun,” but also where “every day you’ve got to turn out and you’ve got to try and be the best.”
“When I came in as a coach about 10 years ago, it was quite overpowering,” Foster explains.
“You’re walking into an environment where you know expectations are incredibly high; it’s an environment that can suffocate you because you have to win and you have to perform well.”
After the defeat against Ireland, the All Blacks again lost their place at the top of the men’s world rankings to South Africa — although the desire to be the number one side in the world is only part of what motivates the team’s players.
“Clearly, we want to be the best team in the world,” said Barrett, who was withdrawn from Saturday’s game against Ireland after failing a head injury assessment.
“To be honest, even if we’re number one, we’d still probably feel — or have the same desire or drive — to be the best we could be.”
For All Blacks captain and second row Sam Whitelock, his approach to the game always starts with his own performance.
“I know that if I go out there and play really well myself, I can help the team,” Whitelock told CNN Sport. “So I look at it individually first.
“Ideally, you’d always want to be number one (in the world rankings), but if you go out there and play your game, then you can help influence the team. And then, obviously, the team can sort out who is number one, number two or whatever.”
With France looming, Foster said at the start of this week that his side will be eager to make amends for the defeat against Ireland, when they were starved of possession and forced to make more than 200 tackles over the course of the game.
“I don’t think we’ll be short of motivation at all,” said Foster. “Our senior players and leaders are hurting and already starting to think about our plan for this week.”
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