The Super Rugby season kicks off for the New Zealand Conference tomorrow, as the Blues travel to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders. What are some of the questions that each franchise – and the All Blacks selectors – will be considering heading into their 2018 campaigns?
How we talk about team culture
“If you say rugby unifies New Zealand, if you say better people make better players and if we are going to pay young men six times the average wage when they are 21, we have to accept criticism if we dip below the moral line.”
Discussion of the concept of team culture in rugby is dominated by the All Blacks’ coaching and playing environment. This environment is lauded for the level of on-pitch performance it produces, but is often derided by detractors for its apparent hypocrisy: Steve Hansen declaring that “good people make good All Blacks” is juxtaposed with numerous negative stories involving symbols of this culture such as Aaron Smith and Dan Carter. This reading stems from the way in which sporting behaviour is traditionally couched in moral terms: we talk about a player showing integrity, bravery and heart and extrapolate from this an individual moral judgement, when in reality all we can really deduce is a professional’s aptitude and willingness to work hard to achieve a desired goal.
Parsing Hansen’s comments on his team environment, we can see that he too is guilty of this elision – it is the latter which he essentially interprets as the key to his “good people”, “no dickheads” policy: “For us we are trying to find people of good character…because if they have got good character they will have good character on the track under pressure. Invariably the people who are dickheads off the track are the ones who wilt when they are on it.”
Hansen’s dealings with the media are instructive in the way that they prioritise the team environment above all else: we can see this in his treatment of the Owen Franks case last summer, and his circling of the wagons in the wake of Steven Luatua’s signing with Bristol. Gregor Townsend’s handling of the controversy surrounding Conor Murray’s standing leg is in the same vein: a statement designed to address the events not in their wider context (player safety in the case of Murray and Franks, and a professional player’s freedom of choice in the case of Luatua), but in the context of their effect on the team environment.
The Chiefs broke away from the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth towards the end of the first half of last weekend’s Round 3 match, having made hard work of the opening half an hour. Their defence of the Kings’ driving maul, some uncharacteristic handling errors and the concession of soft penalties allowed the home side to keep in touch until Damian McKenzie touched down on 32 minutes. They added four second half tries to their three in the first, and Charlie Ngatai’s midfield break on first phase ball to open the scoring in the second period exemplified what the New Zealand franchise have tried to do in attack so far this Super Rugby season.