Despite only having a population of around 4.4 million, New Zealand teams are often among the best in the world.
New Zealand’s unheralded success in world rugby across all levels is due to the Kiwi culture – where rugby is an ingrained aspect of everyday life, says Kiwi-born UKrugby presenter James Gemmell.
Speaking to Newstalk ZB‘s Andrew Dickens about his upcoming documentary based around New Zealand’s rugby obsession called ‘Beneath the Black’, Gemmell explained why rugby is such an important aspect within New Zealand society, and how that contributes to making our national sides so good.
Gemmell took it upon himself to figure out the answers to these questions, embarking on an expedition to these shores where he captured the footage for ‘Beneath the Black’.
“We took these bigger themes of community, of identity, of the connections between people and the game of sport that go beyond the pitch itself,” said the former TV 3 rugby reporter.
“It really wasn’t that much about rugby on the pitch, this was about our relationship with rugby and how it’s shaped us as a country, so we looked at those big themes, and we tried to find specific examples within New Zealand culture and society as a means of showcasing it.”
Gemmell identified the fiercely competitive and historic rivalry between Auckland Grammar and King’s College as a prime example of the impact of rugby within New Zealand society.
“It’s not the only one [example of a big schoolboy rugby rivalry],” said the former Auckland Grammar pupil.
HOW DID IT BECOME SO POPULAR?
“There are many games like it that are big, that are televised, that have history in New Zealand, but by filming that game, and the obsession around that game, we could showcase to a British audience that this is what kids go through, this is what young men go through on their way to becoming All Blacks.
“They learn about representing their school, they learn about handling pressure, and they learn about what it means to wear a jersey, to have pride, and to represent other people.”
“It was actually the people who weren’t playing the game, or don’t necessarily play the game, or would go along because their brother was playing, or their boyfriend or whatever it might be.
The indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, had been playing a game very similar to Aussie Rules before settlers even arrived. When the settlers from England came ashore, they brought rugby with them, which the Māori populations quickly adopted.
It’s a game that requires a lot of physical fitness, agility, and strength; you need a lot of muscle to withstand the tackles. The fact that both the English and the Māoriplayed similar games meant that it was a great way for them to bond and connect. It also fit the New Zealand way of life perfectly; the settlers that arrived were hardened rural farmers, but the real star of the show was the Māori who were very strong and already very skilled at a similar sport.
Despite the fact that the British teams received more training and attention, when they first played off against the kiwi’s in the early 1900’s they were not prepared for our guys; they were hardened rural folk. It clicked with the kiwi way of life and it took off; New Zealand quickly became the best in the world.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO NZ CULTURE?
Rugby is the third biggest game in the world; and yet despite our small population (just 4.4 million people), New Zealand is the best in the world – both in the male and female leagues. This is especially important as NZ has a friendly rivalry with Australia, whose team, the Wallabies, are national leaders. Thus, games between them and the All Blacks receive a huge amount of attention.
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It is a source of pride for our nation, and from young age children – both boys and girls – are introduced to it and play it. The All Blacks are national heroes and everyone knows and recognizes them. Every year there are competitions between the different cities teams, such as the Crusaders (Canterbury), the Blues (Auckland) and the Hurricanes (Wellington).
Ultimately, the reason it is so important to us is that, as a nation, we are born to be amazing players – and for those not quite as skilled in the sport (like me) we still love it!