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For the best part of a decade, and most of the last century, New Zealand has dominated world rugby. With a winning record that sits just a tick under 80% across the last 100 years, the All Blacks are a globally recognised brand and a team synonymous with skill, intensity and success. Only 23 men can wear the famous silver fern on their chests at any one time, but they carry with them the weight of expectation of more than four and a half million people, who hang off every pass, tackle and try. Expectation that will be at fever pitch when the 2019 Rugby World Cup begins in Tokyo this week. The All Blacks are the standard-bearers for a nation at the end of the world: a team that provides its supporters with a sense of what it means to be a New Zealander. But on this particular breezy Auckland afternoon, all is not as rosy as they’re accustomed to.
It’s 35 days out from the ninth Rugby World Cup, and New Zealand is readying itself for what would usually be the biggest weekend of the year. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen paces the sidelines of the team’s final training run before the deciding game of the Bledisloe Cup against Australia — a trophy the team is trying to win for a 17th straight year — while veteran Sonny Bill Williams signs autographs for kids who hang over the fence. It’s only just gone 3pm, so said children must have either skipped school or been let out early. But you do what you can to watch the All Blacks. This is New Zealand’s team after all.
Moments later, captain Kieran Read strides along the Eden Park touchline to give his final news conference before Saturday’s meeting with the Wallabies. The skipper is measured, but perhaps not as forthcoming as he might usually be. Having been toweled up by Australia in Perth only six days prior, Read knows his side is under pressure with the weight of expectation, and that any slip up on the same patch of turf 24 hours later will see Sunday’s newspapers plastered with such headlines as World Cup campaign in chaos. Chasing a third straight Webb Ellis Cup, the New Zealand public demands a response.
“It’s the best job in the world and it’s the worst job in the world, it depends on what week you’re in,” former All Blacks prop Craig Dowd tells ESPN. “I’m sure this week a lot of All Blacks are saying it’s a horrible job because they’re under the microscope and they’ve got the blowtorch on them.”
Across town at Albany’s North Harbour Stadium, the weekend’s rugby action is already underway, one of 5000 rugby matches that take place across the country every single week.
The curtain-raiser for the evening’s Mitre 10 Cup clash between North Harbour and Counties Manukau has just come to an end; Westlake Boys High School have just beaten Whangarei Boys High School to become the North Harbour School Champions for 2019. Both teams have been well supported in the stands, and schoolmates, friends and family are rewarded for their efforts with a haka in front of the grandstand from the very boys they have come to watch. Each school’s haka differs, but not so the passion and intensity with which it is delivered nor the resounding support it receives on the other side of the fence.
As some of those school fans drift out, the North Harbour supporters slide in. The smell of hot dogs and chips fills the chilly winter air as a beautiful amber sky appears over the horizon on Bledisloe eve. North Harbour and Counties take to the field for the main game, the hosts with All Blacks prop Karl Tu’inukuafe in their front-row. Just a week prior, Sonny Bill Williams had been lining up for Counties Manukau; the visitors will have to do without him tonight, though.
The entire evening is a snapshot into the sporting environment and pathways that have helped keep New Zealand rugby and the All Blacks ahead of the game, so too the affinity for a sport for which the country is synonymous across the globe. Support for your local club, your school, your province. It all feeds the machine that is the All Blacks and fosters a dream that anyone can pull on that famous black jersey, so revered, and play in front of 45,000 fans back across town at Eden Park.
Counties Manukau’s Jonathan Taumateine, right, carries the ball under pressure from North Harbour’s Tevita Li during the MItre 10 Cup match on Aug. 18 in Albany, New Zealand.Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
“I don’t think you can overestimate how important it is to have strong development pathways, and those are not necessarily particularly formal because in many cases they are just reasonably good coaching at a young age and really well-organized clubs and grassroots teams,” the first Rugby World Cup-winning captain and All Blacks icon David Kirk tells ESPN.
“So people can go along and get into a t
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