New Zealand is rugby mad. It is just that simple.
Yes, other sports are followed, but rugby is its lifeblood – and to many, much closer to a religion.
The mighty All Blacks (or ABs for short) continually carry the hopes of the nation and for most of their history have been the dominant international team, despite the relative small size of the country’s population. Until recently though this legacy has always carried a significant blemish, with the team not having won the World Cup since they hosted the inaugural competition on home soil back in 1987. This, it should be said, despite frequently being the hotly tipped favourites to do so each time.
Having again stuttered in 2009 by losing to France, the Head Coach, Graham Henry remained in post with the clear and steadfast aim of hosting the trophy on home soil when the competition was due to return to New Zealand in 2011.
To put that into context, in the run up to the biggest and most important tournament the nation had ever held, following yet another disappointing and crushing defeat – and for four further years, Graham Henry had only one very public and visible ambition in this rugby-mad country; to win the world cup.
In 2011, New Zealand again faced France, this time in the final. In front of a packed Eden Park and the wider ‘Stadium of Four Million’ the All Blacks’ resolve held, clinching a nervy 8-7 victory, winning the World Cup and giving the country the victory it had craved for so long.
And to see what it meant to the adoring public watch this:
Graham Henry was in fact originally a very successful school teacher – working as a Principal alongside maintaining his interest in rugby before his coaching career really took off, firstly with Auckland, and then the Blues and Wales. Following the final whistle at Eden Park, he was at pains to recognise the efforts and accomplishments of everyone involved in their monumental World Cup victory.
As he outlined in his interview, there were of course many heroes to this eventful journey but if there was one person I wanted to discuss ambitions with it was certainly the coach who had led them to this most ambitious of goals – especially in the context of how public the goal was and that he had suffered severe criticism for their exit in the previous World Cup back in 2007.
And of course, it being a small country, I ran into him on my second weekend in Auckland…
‘Family is important and the people you spend time with including who you play sport with. You need to be close to people. Then there’s your career. Education is important – put serious time in there; be focused. Interests: make sure you follow them. Rugby became my career but it started off as an interest. I was lucky I guess.’
‘Get those things balanced – that’s important. For example, in sport some people completely focus on their sport and don’t have a balance and so then don’t leave themselves a contingency if their first choice doesn’t happen. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been continually challenged by lots of things and that’s important – to challenge yourself.’
‘What advice would I give my 16 year old self? Not sure. Maybe to be a bit more focused a bit earlier. I certainly got more focused as I got older.’
‘Targets are important – absolutely critical. They then give you a game plan to work towards. I don’t think enough people use this approach enough basically.’