Whatever Happened to The Polynesian Takeover of New Zealand Rugby?

At the turn of the century, many commentators believed that a total Polynesian takeover of the All Blacks was inevitable – what happened?

The All Blacks team for this Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup clash against the Wallabies has been named. A curious aspect of the teamsheet is that it is one of the whitest All Blacks teams named in decades. This means that a lot of the race-panic rhetoric at the turn of the century turned out to be grossly misguided, and this article looks at why.

In the opening years of this century, the All Blacks back row was made up of the “Great Wall of Samoa” in Jerry Collins, Chris Masoe and Rodney So’oialo, with the Tongan-born Sione Lauaki playing a part-time role. All three of these players typified the “big hit” culture of Polynesian rugby, and they earned the “Great Wall” epithet from their uncompromising defensive style.

The back three was comprised of the “Flying Fijians” Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, with the rock-solid Mils Muliaina as the last line of defence. All three players were lightning-fast across the ground – a quality, we were told, deriving from the superior proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the Polynesian genome. No white player was going to be able to compete, ever again.

The idea that the All Blacks front row would sooner or later be permanently Polynesian was taken for granted in many quarters. After all, the squat, solid build of the average Polynesian was considered the ideal build for a prop, and some considered it just a matter of time until the heavier build of the Polynesians won out.

The last bastion of white All Blacks was expected to be the second row, on account of that the Polynesian genome seldom produced men taller than 6’6″, which is realistically the minimum height necessary to succeed as an international lock. But even then, with players like Ross Filipo on the rise, it seemed as if the entire forward pack would follow the backs in becoming entirely Polynesian.

This piece from The Telegraph, penned in the year 2000 and titled ‘White players shying away from All Black future‘, is typical of the rhetoric of the turn of the century. John Morris, the headmaster of Auckland Grammar School, explained that white pupils at his school were abandoning rugby union and turning “to soccer, hockey or even rugby league where there is a better chance for the smaller lad.”

This seemed reasonable for white kids, who, going through puberty later than Polynesians, often found themselves as boys against men on the high school rugby fields. Many thought that white kids would all turn to cricket, essentially abandoning rugby to the Samoans, Fijians and Tongans.

John Matheson, editor of New Zealand Rugby magazine, even went as far as to state “It won’t be too long before there is not a white face in the All Black team.”

Fast forward 17 years, to this weekend’s Bledisloe Cup match, and those predictions could hardly have been more wrong.

The player with the most Polynesian blood in the All Blacks starting XV is the half-Samoan Reiko Ioane. Sonny Bill Williams, at centre, is next. He is at most half-Samoan, with a white mother and a father with a Welsh surname. All of the other All Blacks are white or Maori – and there is not a single Fijian or Tongan among them.

Two half-Samoans out of fifteen players means that less than 7% of the All Blacks are Polynesian by blood – a lower proportion than the amount of Polynesian blood in the New Zealand population as a whole, and barely greater than that of Black Caps. And even then, Ross Taylor is a far more established player in his team than either Ioane or Williams is in the All Blacks.

So what happened?

Explaining this outcome – and how the white ethnomasochists at the turn of the century got it so badly wrong – is not straightforward.

First, genetics plays a role, in ways that were understood by few 15 years ago. Polynesians may have a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and that may make them quick across the turf, but this simply means that white players have a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Because rugby union is fundamentally a game of possession, strength trumps speed in many cases, in particular when it comes to the contest for the ball.

Players of European descent have an advantage in the upper body over Polynesians, especially when it comes to grip strength and shoulder strength. When it comes to winning the ball, this advantage is decisive. This explains why the All Blacks forward pack this weekend will be entirely white, with the exception of the Maori hooker Codie Taylor (who nevertheless has plenty of European ancestry).

The second major explanation is geographical. If one looks at the birthplaces of the current All Blacks squad, one striking pattern leaps out: very few of them are born in the big cities.

The lifestyle of people in Kiwi big cities is following the trends established elsewhere in the West: big city people are rapidly getting fatter, lazier, more obese. This means that many more All Blacks are from the minor centres than before – and the population of the minor centres is almost exclusively white and Maori.

The third major factor is professionalism. At the turn of the century, rugby matches were often won by turns of individual brilliance, as they were in the amateur days.

The game has changed a lot since then. It is much more structured now, which means that there is less room for individual flair and more demand for highly-coached, error-free play, which shifts the advantage to the middle classes because they are far more able to pay for the necessary coaching. In doing so, the advantage also shifts away from the working-class Polynesians and back to the white people who occupy the vast bulk of the middle class.

In summary, the breathless predictions of total Polynesian dominance of the top levels of New Zealand rugby turned out to be wrong. Rugby union is a fundamental part of Islander culture, this is true – but it’s a fundamental part of white Kiwi culture as well, and the Pakeha are not going to give the game up simply because they get smashed a lot in teenage years.

Predicting the racial makeup of the All Blacks in another 17 years is impossible. What can be said for certain is – as Sir Apirana Ngata believed – rugby union will continue to serve as the best of all cultural solutions for bringing out inter-racial harmony and co-operation in New Zealand, as it has done for over 120 years.

Can the Lions Cope With Blitzkrieg Rugby?

Rugby is a game that is based on the laws of battle. The forwards represent the infantry, the backs the cavalry, and the kicker the artillery. Much like warfare, team styles of rugby fall on a spectrum with attritional warfare on one end and manoeuvre warfare at the other.

In the same way that the Wehrmacht shocked its opponents with revolutionary tactics in the opening stages of World War II, the reason why the All Blacks have dominated the world rugby stage for over a decade is that they’re conducting a blitzkrieg while everyone else is in World War I mode.

In other words, the All Blacks are fighting with manoeuvre warfare while everyone else is in the attritional mindset.

The concept of the blitzkrieg was based around two general principles: the schwerpunkt and the kesselschlacht.

A ‘schwerpunkt’ (“heavy point”) refers to a specific point in the enemy defensive line that was targeted for a sudden, intense rush of artillery, armour and infantry, with the specific intent of breaking the line and driving beyond.

Usually this took the form of an intense artillery barrage from multiple batteries concentrated on a single point in the line, followed immediately by a heavy tank charge with the intent of breaching the line, and then infantrymen into the breach with the intent of holding it and keeping it open.

Usually there was more than one schwerpunkt, the idea being that multiple columns of armour would break the enemy line at various points and then, as they penetrated deep into the enemy interior, link up in what was called a pincer movement, as it cleaved off a chunk of the map in a manner akin to the pincers of an insect.

When two or more columns of armour met in the interior of the enemy, that essentially meant that all of the enemy forces between the initial front lines and the two vast lines established by the armour were surrounded in the centre, making it possible to pin them with artillery fire.

Because this led to those enemy forces being rendered into chaos in much the same manner as water boiling in a kettle, this was known as a ‘kesselschlact’ (“kettle battle”).

The reason why this tactic – called blitzkrieg by the British – was so successful is that is allowed the attacker to break up tens of kilometres of enemy defensive line in one movement. This was a drastic change from the usual World War I tactic of winning a few hundred meters at a time in a slow, bloody grind that was vulnerable to counterattack.

Because so much of the enemy line was broken so quickly, it had a tendency to collapse before it could regroup, as was seen in France and the opening weeks of Barbarossa.

So much for the military lesson.

The two distinct styles of rugby union played in the world today could be roughly referred to as the Atlantic and the Pacific styles.

The Atlantic style is the traditional, attritional style of rugby favoured by the Northern Hemisphere sides and by South Africa and Argentina. It is otherwise known as “tight”, “10 man” or “up the jumper” rugby and refers to a love of mauls, scrums, pick and gos, high bombs, one-out crashballing, pinpoint kicking and generally just mudwrestling – essentially World War I-style tactics in miniature.

The Pacific style, championed by the All Blacks, is also played by Australia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Japan used it when they shocked the Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and Argentina flirt with using it. It is derided as “loose”, “festival” or “basketball” rugby by the Northerners.

Those who play this style love offloads, cut-out passes, goosesteps, wrap-around plays, fends that knock the fullbacks over, sudden and untelegraphed changes of attack direction, chipping and regathering, passing in front of the receiver, and perfectly-timed passes that allow the winger to skin the covering tackle on the outside.

Done poorly, the Pacific style can disintegrate into a shambles reminiscent of a scratch Barbarians game, in which the players are trying to force every pass and the opposition can win simply by waiting for opportunities to counterattack.

Done well, the Pacific style gives us blitzkrieg rugby.

Like the military blitzkrieg, successful use of this tactic is much more than just throwing the ball around and having big players who can run fast. It also requires a particularly high degree of co-ordination.

If there’s one way in which the All Blacks are always more effective than their opposition it is in their ability to support a line break. Almost every time an All Black breaks the line he has options for unloading.

This is a consequence of the fact that All Black players have usually played rugby since they were small children and have an intuitive ability to read the game that has been refined over more years than the other teams’ players.

In the same way that the Soviet Union stopped the Nazi blitzkrieg by successfully using multiple lines of defence, the Lions will have to accept and adapt to the fact that their first lines are going to get broken.

In other words, if the Lions are going to stop the blitzkrieg rugby of the All Blacks they are going to have to scramble like demons.

This will require a high degree of skill as the defenders will have to make correct decisions at extreme pace.

Usually these decisions involve which lines to run so as to shut down space in order to prevent the player making the line break from setting up an outside runner, as it is this aspect of the game where the All Blacks can devastate teams in very short order.

The blueprint for this ought to be the Irish win over the All Blacks in Chicago last year. The Irish defence retained its cohesion in that game despite the rapid manoeuvre attack of the All Blacks. If the Lions cannot at least equal the defensive cohesion of that Irish team, the All Blacks will cut them to shreds.

Furthermore, without a kicker near to the class of Dan Carter the Men in Black do not have a reliable Plan B. It’s blitzkrieg rugby or nothing – so the British and Irish can be expected to have an excellent game plan.

Rugby union is, and always has been, a game of skill.

The All Blacks will play to a gameplan which puts the skills of all 30 players under the highest possible stress at the highest possible tempo, because these circumstances give the decisive edge to the most skilled side, and they believe themselves to have the superior skills.

If the Lions are going to stop this blitzkrieg they are going to have to make intelligent decisions extremely quickly to an intelligent gameplan. The competitiveness of the series will hinge on their ability to do this.

Did Richie McCaw Destroy International Rugby?

The Sydney Bledisloe Cup match of 2000 was a high water mark in international rugby. In front of 109,000 people, the world champion Australia team and the desperate, wounded All Blacks fought to the death like Ali and Frazier. Many who saw it said at the time it was the most extraordinary rugby match ever played, with an iconic match-winning performance from none other than Jonah Lomu.

The All Blacks prevailed on that night, 39-35, but the Wallabies would win by one point three weeks later to retain the Bledisloe Cup, and at the time it seemed like the advent of professional rugby was about to make for a titanic era of contests for this trophy.

Professional rugby seemed like it was going to bring a lot of razzamatazz to the Southern Hemisphere circuit – Super Rugby was also huge that year. The ACT Brumbies topped the table at the end of the pool stages, and ended up losing the final at home against the Canterbury Crusaders by one point.

The next year, 2001, marked the Super Rugby debut, also for the Crusaders, of one Richie Hugh McCaw. As it turned out, McCaw was not so much a rugby player as a genius that played rugby.

He only played eight minutes of Super Rugby that year, but he did play a full NPC season, and was good enough to win selection to the All Blacks’ end of year tour, where he was handed a debut against Ireland, and promptly won Man of the Match.

The next year, 2002, McCaw became a Crusaders regular. In an odd echo of the future, the Crusaders won every single match that year, taking the Super Rugby title undefeated – something never achieved before or since.

2003 might have been the end of the golden summer for Australian rugby. They lost the Bledisloe Cup, but managed to knock the All Blacks out of the World Cup, going on to take an all-conquering England team to extra time in the final.

Come 2017, and Australia has not won the Bledisloe Cup since. Richie McCaw may have retired two years ago, but in the same way that Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca depressed the price of gold in the Middle East for decades afterwards, McCaw’s decade of almost total dominance still depresses Australian rugby.

This year’s Super Rugby table makes for confusing reading. The current leaders of the Australian conference, the Brumbies, have fewer tournament points than the current wooden spooners of the New Zealand conference, the Blues.

New Zealand rugby is so dominant that the 4th-ranked Kiwi team, the Highlanders, has only lost three games all season. Despite this, they can’t climb any higher than 4th because the Hurricanes have only lost two, the Chiefs one and the Crusaders zero.

Even worse is the effect this dominance has had on the Internet rhetoric. At the turn of the century, trans-Tasman rugby banter was between equals. In recent years, however, it has taken a darker turn: the prison rape metaphor, once only applied to descriptions of All Blacks matches against the hapless Celts, crept into summaries of Bledisloe matches.

At its nadir, the Internet rhetoric was entirely based on the degree of sexual impotence the Australian players and fans would suffer as a consequence of the losses and for how many years afterwards. The jokes were that the children of Australian players would be too ashamed to admit their paternity to their classmates.

So the question is this: was Richie McCaw so good at rugby that he actually destroyed the international game? Did he set standards so high that all other nations just gave up on hoping to ever match them?

Probably not. After all, Australia made it to the World Cup final in 2015, and they did about as well there as any other side could have hoped to have done – namely, a loss by a two-try margin.

Alexander the Great died at age 33, and within months of the same age Richie McCaw retired from international rugby. The struggle for a successor to Alexander saw his empire shatter into four pieces and then to further disintegrate.

Kieran Read now leads the All Blacks, and his side might play the role of the Seleucid Empire, the early favourites to recreate the total world domination that McCaw once achieved.

However, no order can exist indefinitely, and it is in the nature of peaks to erode into valleys. The standards set by McCaw are unlikely to be maintained for the simple reason that the men tasked with doing so will not possess McCaw’s genius.

This column believes that it is in the Australian nature, despite a decade of denial, to recognise the smell of blood at the first opportunity and to take advantage of it. Therefore, it predicts that the current sorry state of Australian rugby will not last for much longer.

And as long as one side can stand up to the All Blacks the others will always believe themselves to have a hope.