Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Farewell to the Big Man

Many of my friends in Asia are often surprised by the fact that although I’ve lived in England for most of my formative years, I’m not much of an “Anglophile.” However, there is one aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture that I’ve adopted and grown to love – that it the game of rugby. For me, rugby union as a game, embodies many of the values of the British and their rougher cousins, the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans – namely the ability to tack a few knocks, get up again and somehow play a good game. As I get older, I appreciate the game all the more because, it seems to me that the guys playing rugby union have stayed far more true to the values of what sport should be – namely friendly free flowing competition that brings out the best in people. Although rugby union has become a professional sport, you hear allot less of the “gamesmanship,” “money politics” and “steroid abuse” in rugby union than you get in soccer or American football.

So, it was really sad to read about the demise of Jonah Lomu last weekend (November 18, 2015). Jonah Lomu was, as they say ‘rugby’s first superstar.’ Mr. Lomu was what nice people would call a “freak of nature.” He was physically imposing (6.5 feet tall and over kg). Yet, despite being huge, he was quick and agile. The man could run the 100 metre sprint in less than 11 seconds (pretty darn good for a non-Olympian and bloody amazing for a man that size.)

When Mr. Lomu broke onto the scene in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, he became an overnight sensation. His ability to cut through defences and score tries was sensational. Much as it pains most Englishmen to admit it, nobody can forget the way the English national team got blown away by Mr. Lomu in their semi-final encounter. The images of him leaving Mike Catt and Tony Underwood (English rugby players who are by no means puny characters) sprawling on the ground as they tried to stop the rampaging Mr. Lomu are etched in minds of ever rugby purist.

What made Lomu’s prominence so significant was the fact that he game at a time when Rugby Union was an amateur game. The laws of the game were such that the superstars of the game were simply not allowed to earn a penny from playing rugby. The laws on amateurism were such that the ruby players weren’t even supposed to make money from endorsements through the fame of playing rugby. At best, one could use rugby union was a means of getting into the semi-pro code of Rugby League or even American Football.

Jonah Lomu’s performance of the ruby union world cup in 1995 helped to bring rugby to the world and attracted commercial opportunities. The Dallas Cowboys, one of the NFL’s most famous sides, offered him $10 million. He was also offered an opportunity to commercialise and profit from the try that he scored against England.

Jonah Lomu turned down the money. He wouldn’t change codes even though the money offered by the Cowboys was far more than what he could have earned in a lifetime of playing ruby (even today, rugby salaries don’t even come close). He said quite openly that he was there to be part of the All Blacks.

Most interestingly, he turned down the opportunity to commercialise on the image of him running through the English line during the 1995 World Cup – his reason was simple, he didn’t want to cause pain to Mike Catt, the English player that he ran over on the way to scoring that try.

Many celebrities including sports stars to charity work and support causes. Jonah Lomu was more than that. He was a man who turned down greater commercial opportunities for the love of his game and his respect for his fellow players.

Mr. Lomu was a big man in every sense of the word. Not only was he physically imposing but he had a big heart, which made him a gem of a character. He will be missed by the rug

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Dominance of a Small Obscure Island Nation.

Last Saturday, New Zealand’s legendary All Black team created history by defending their rugby world cup title. The historic win has put the island nation into a “party mode” and there is a sense of vindication for the nation that regarded its national team as the world’s best but had to wait 24-years between their first and second world cup wins.

What makes the All Black win more interesting is the fact that this is a national team from a small country of around 4.71 million people tucked away at the furthest end of the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand does not rank as an emerging superpower let alone a superpower. While prosperous, New Zealand rarely ranks on a top ten of any global listing. By way of a comparison, New Zealand with a population of 4.71 million has as estimated GDP of $170 billion plus whereas Singapore, a nation that developed later than New Zealand, with a comparable population has a estimated GDP of $308 billion (source – Wikipedia).

So, how did New Zealand become so dominant in rugby when it lacks the key attributes (a large population and money) of other sporting powerhouses?  An examination of what makes the New Zealand All Blacks so successful is a worthy study for small organizations hopping to succeed.

The best place to start is probably the obvious – rugby union in New Zealand is a national religion and the country’s entire national pride is invested in the national rugby team. As such, the nation’s economic and emotional resources are thrown into the game. By comparison, if you look at New Zealand’s closest rivals; rugby union is only the third most popular game in Australia (after Australian Rules and Rugby League) and in South Africa rugby union is only the game of the white minority.

This means that every All Black player who steps onto the pitch does so with the understanding that he’s not playing for himself but for the entire nation. A loss, no matter how narrow is regarded as a national disaster. One only has to look to former Prime Minister, Jim Bolger’s remarks after their 16-6 defeat at the hands of Australia in the 1991 World Cup semi-finals; he was willing to talk about war and natural disaster – anything but rugby. There is also the increase in visits to the psychiatrist after defeats in 1999, 2003 and 2007.
The All Blacks start every game with the psychological advantage of knowing that victory and defeat mean more to them than it does to anyone else.

Then there is the superb grassroots organization that has ensured that the New Zealand All Blacks have a source of talent to draw on. Clubs like the Aukland Rugby Union organize school competitions, which allow them to identify and draw on talent at a young stage. Then there are several layers of national teams that provide international experience to players, which prepare the lucky few for entry into the exclusive national team. Teams like the Maori All Blacks (comprises mainly of players of Maori decent), the Heartland XV and Junior All Blacks are training grounds to identify the best in a similar way to the way the Royal Marine Commandos provide a training ground to the Special Boat Squadron.

Not only does the New Zealand Rugby Union’s system allow it to maximise the resources that it has at hand, there is also a system where promising players from outside New Zealand, particularly in the Pacific Island Nations to become All Blacks. Michael Jones, one of the most respected players in All Black history made his international debut for Samoa before becoming an All Black (there was also the converse – Va’aiga Tuigamala had a second international career playing for Samoa after his career as an All Black.) The interchangeability between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands got one of my school friends to state that “Western Samoa is effectively the New Zealand B Team” during the 1991 World Cup.

The only two comparable grassroots organization in sport that are perhaps Germany’s football system, which was developed after a decline of the national team in the early 1990s and the NFL’s draft system. These are two systems that have far more resources at their disposal than the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Developing talent internally has given New Zealand a ready source of talent to tap on and having rugby as a national religion gives the All Blacks an edge when they step onto the pitch.

There is also the issue of the culture within the team. While New Zealand has its share of superstars like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, every All Black player is reminded that this is a team sport and nobody becomes bigger than the team.

There is the unifying Maori dance – the hakka which every All Black player performs regardless of ethnic religion. I’ve always been amazed by the way obviously ethnic Caucasians like Jeff Wilson used to perform this obviously Maori ritual with intensity.

There is however more than just a war dance to keep the players unified. A list of the cultural building exercises can be found at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/10427619/The-All-Blacks-guide-to-being-successful-off-the-field.html.

One of the most notable interesting factors in this list is the fact that the players have to clean up after themselves. This helps keep them humble in the face of things and when people see the superstars of the team picking up after themselves, they remember that this is a team game.

When you get people to gel together successfully, you create a situation where everyone is successful, despite whatever may happen to a superstar. The All Blacks can still win without Dan Carter.

Other teams have fallen short when their superstars have fallen. The most glaring comparison can be found in the 2014 World Cup when Brazil, the host nation and a nation with an abundance of talent and regards the World Cup as its birthright, were humiliated by Germany in the semi-finals. Brazil is supposed to be to soccer what New Zealand is to rugby union.

What happened was simple – Brazil became dependent on a single superstar called Neymar, who’s brilliance was often enough to cover up the flaws in the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF). Neymar had to be carried off on a stretcher and that was the end of Brazil as a football team.

Generally speaking, the guy with the abundance of talent and money has the advantage. However, the success of the All Blacks has shown that money and size are not everything. Knowing what to do with what you have can be far more important. 

The statistics speak for themselves. The All Blacks have a 75 percent winning streak against all opponents. When you look at their winning rate, it is even more impressive. The only two teams where the winning rate is less than 70 percent are against the Australian Wallabies (68 percent) and the South African Springboks ( 58 percent). The only top Northern Hemisphere teams to have ever beaten the All Blacks are France (76 percent win rate against France), England (80 percent win rate against England) and Wales (90 percent win rate against Wales). The only team to beat the All Blacks in 2015 was Australia.

These are statistics that no other sports teams have come close to achieving. So, surely its worth studying what this team from this small island nation has been doing right. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

More than the Mollah!

Rugby World Cup 2015 has finished with a bang. As expected, New Zealand’s legendary All Blacks have defended their title and they did it in style with a 34-17 win against their greatest rivals, the Australian Wallabies. The All Blacks have played a level where nobody, including their defeated rivals can argue that they did not deserve to win.

One of the stories gong around social media and focusing on the All Black player, Sonny Bill Williams and gesture of sportsmanship. While the All Blacks were on their tour of triumph, a young boy ran across the pitch towards him and was rugby tackled by a security guard. Mr. Williams handled the matter and ended up giving the boy his winners medal (read more at: http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-union/rugby-world-cup/rugby-world-cup-final-2015-sonny-bill-williams-amazing-postgame-gesture-receives-universal-praise-20151101-gknw91.html)

Mr. Williams won universal praise. The story has been going around social media and everyone has talked about what a great sportsman Mr. Williams is. One of my school friends made the comment that this would simply never have happened in football (Soccer to my American and Australian readers). Unfortunately, my friend is right. As Rugby World Cup 2015 was going on, FIFA (Soccer’s world governing body) was being investigated for corruption. Watch any football match and you’ll find that footballs megastar players rolling on the floor at the slightest tap. By comparison, the players in 2015 were happily getting bashed and with very little complaint and the guys who got yellow and red cards did so for events that were seriously life threatening.

If one were to bring down the comparison to national level, things would be even more interesting, especially if you are English. In England, you have what many people call the best football league in the world. English Premier League clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are global brand icons.  The fame of English players like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney are universal. Yet, despite all of that, England has yet to produce a National team of any significance on the global stage.

By comparison, England’s Rugby players usually do a decent job on the world stage. England has won the World Cup once and been runner up twice. Despite being knocked out at the early stages of this World Cup (losing to traditional rivals Australia and Wales), England’s record in the Rugby World Cup is nothing to be sniffed at. By comparison, England’s football players have yet to get beyond the quarter finals since their semi-final appearance in 1990.

Why is there such a high level of passion and decency from the rugby boys, which seems to be lacking for the boys playing football?

I suspect the reason for this is due to money. The levels of money flowing into soccer are at levels where everyone is forced to try and win whatever the costs. Sponsors and television producers are only willing to put money into clubs that win consistently and clubs need to make more and more money because the players are demanding higher and higher salaries. The players in turn are demanding higher salaries as the increased physicality o the game means bodies wear out faster and careers are shorter.

By comparison there is less money floating around in rugby for it to be corrupting. There was a stage when rugby union’s rules were simply ridiculous. Players were prevented from being paid by the laws of the game. 

However, things have changed with professionalism. Rugby Players can earn a decent salary to do what they want to do – play rugby. Salaries for the top rugby players are not be sniffed at. A good rugby player can earn a couple of hundred thousand Euros a month at top European club (see list at: http://www.therichest.com/sports/other-sports/top-10-highest-paid-rugby-players-in-the-world/?view=all)

However, while the rugby salaires are good, they are nowhere near what their counterparts in soccer get. If an international superstar can earn a few hundred thousand a year, a good soccer player will earn millions in a year. (Look at: http://sporteology.com/top-10-highest-paid-soccer-players-2015/11/)

There’s nothing wrong with being well paid. Sports stars, as my uncle once said, train on average two hours more per day than the average person works. Why shouldn’t the likes of Christiano Ronaldo earn pots of money for being very good at sports, when you have the likes of the Khardasian sisters earnings pots of money by wasting ink in the tabloids?

However, there comes a point when money obscures other things that make the game worth playing. I go back to the comparison to England’s Rugby Players who can give the best in the world a run for their money and the English football team that consist of highly paid brats? What happened?
You could say that the rugby players actually listened when the country called while the football players did not.

It’s something many of us should remember. Money is important and having lots of it is better than not having it at all. However, money isn’t everything and there is such a thing as having too much to extent that you forget everything else that makes life worthwhile.