Analysts say a combination of history, geography and culture has elevated rugby union to a status in the national psyche unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
For many, rugby is the only area in which the isolated South Pacific country of 4.5 million can take on the rest of the world and win.
“There’s a strong core of people who believe that the All Blacks are a global brand and their achievements are globally significant,” Lincoln University sportshistorian Greg Ryan told AFP.
While Ryan said that conclusion might be “tenuous”, given rugby’s limited global appeal, Prime Minister John Key this month insisted the All Blacks were “great ambassadors for New Zealand”.
The national team is undoubtedly one area where normally self-deprecating Kiwis allow themselves bragging rights, with former player Justin Marshall once describing it as a celebration of “punching above our weight”.
“On the world stage, rugby is our biggest asset… every country has a national sport but few would boast the connection New Zealand has for rugby,” he said.
“It’s a game passed down the generations, and the camaraderie, competitiveness, and desire to be an All Black has always served this country well.”
– Best team ever? –
The bedrock of the nation’s love affair with rugby is the All Blacks’ international record. Everybody loves a winner and the All Blacks have provided victories aplenty.
They have a success rate of more than 75 percent since 1905, rising to almost 85 percent in the professional era — a remarkable record that arguably makes the All Blacks the most successful elite sports team in history.
Other teams such as Australia’s Shane Warne-era cricketers or Pele’s Brazil may have approached similar win rates, but not consistently over such a long period.
Their success is a source of immense pride — seemingly across age, gender and ethnicity — in New Zealand, making it hard to overstate the All Blacks’ prominence the country.
Skipper Richie McCaw was voted the country’s most trusted person a few years ago ahead of charity workers, war veterans and scientists.
At least five of New Zealand’s top 10 most watched TV programmes were rugby matches, while the All Blacks have New Zealand’s most recognised international brand.
The result is a marketing “blackwash” as advertisers scramble to associate themselves with the men in black’s World Cup campaign.
New Zealanders can use team-endorsed credit cards to buy All Blacks-themed nappies, oven mitts or computer cables — while Dan Carter adorns billboards selling underwear, and Kieran Read promotes toilet bowls on TV commercials.
– ‘Not true Kiwis’ –
However, University of Auckland sports sociologist Toni Bruce said her research showed many Kiwis objected to “rugby’s dominance of New Zealand’s cultural life”.
“They don’t like what they see as (rugby’s) link to violence, the increasing commercialisation of the All Blacks, or the way that New Zealanders invest so much of their identity into sport,” she said.
However, she said such views were rarely expressed openly as dissenters feared being labelled “traitors, unpatriotic or not true Kiwis”.
While die-hard supporters might disagree, most concede the one blot on the All Blacks’ record is their relative under-performance at World Cups, winning only two of the seven previous editions.
Ryan said high expectations in New Zealand meant World Cup failures had been met with vilification of players, coaches or match officials.
However, he said New Zealanders now appeared ready to treat a World Cup loss as something less than a national calamity — although that ability will be tested if the unthinkable happens and arch-rivals Australia win this weekend.
“There’s an edge to it (losing) which does tie into expectations — that winning record can be a millstone,” Ryan said.
“I think there will be a reaction if they don’t win, but I don’t think it’ll be, ‘We must sack the coach and change the game from top to bottom’ that we’ve gone through before.
“I think the All Black machine and NZRU have been careful not to over-hype the thing this time and build outrageous expectations.” – Agence France-Presse