How Systems Thinking explains the All Blacks’ success.

There is a diagram that is frequently used by Systems Thinkers to explain how we make sense of the world in a way that is unique to our discipline.

This model proposes four levels of analysis.

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At the top are events. Things are one-off  occurrences and that are often unremarkable. The next level is when these events begin to occur regularly and to appear as some form of pattern.   When these patterns occur, the Systems Thinker looks for underlying structures that produce these patterns.

If these structures appear in organisational, political or social systems, namely they are constructs of conscious action on the part of humans, we look for the mental models, the habits of thought, the attitudes, values and prejudices of the people who may have designed (consciously or otherwise) the system.

The argument is that if you want to change behaviour performance, the first stage is to change the mental models of the people involved in the system. This is a pre-requisite to changing the structures that govern behaviour. If these can be changed then the patterns will change and everyday events will change with them.

In sport, a successful team will strive to turn a  victory in game or a match into a pattern of victories. But often this simply remains an event. It is not until the right structures and income models have been put in place, that a pattern of victories can emerge.

Since 2010, the New Zealand All Blacks have played 85 test matches (that is international matches), they have lost four and drawn two, winning the remaining 79. In the decade before that they played 141 test matches, losing 22. They have won the last two Rugby World Championships which are played every four years.

During this period, nearly 200 people have played for the All Blacks. This means there has  been not just one good team  but a system and structures in place that produce groups of players were consistently the best in the world.

Without a doubt, there have also been brilliant individuals.

But they are only part of the story and they are a result of the system, structures and mental models within New Zealand rugby.

So what are the structures that underlie this particular success?

The first interesting thing about the structures that support to succeed that they are recursive: they occur at a number of levels in the system.

The first  and most fundamental of these structures occur is in the way that the All Blacks are able to play their rugby.  In the first instance, this is based on the talents of the players who have been selected.

Three players who have played in the second row in the scrum, Sam Whitlock  (2.02 m 116 kg), Brad Thorn  (1.95 m 116 kg ) and Brodie Retallick  (2.04 m, 121 kg) are an excellent example. These players are known as the “tall timber” and exemplified  the huge depth of talent that the New Zealand selectors can draw upon.  It is interesting to consider the way their skills have been developed to change the pattern of play.

This is a shot of Retallick taking the ball in the lineout which is one of the key skills for these players. The ball is probably somewhere between 4m and 5m off the ground but this is stock in trade for these players.

What is remarkable about these three is that they reflect an expansion the role of the second row forward, traditionally expected to do the hard work in the lineouts, scrums, rucks and mauls.

Instead of being always involved in the rucks and mauls, these players will often be standing in the backline, running the ball at their opponents.

It is a transformation in the structure of the way the All Blacks play their rugby and it hasn’t been limited to the big second row forwards.

Dane Coles is a front row forward, the hooker, who is a pivotal point of two 800kg packs of forwards in the scrum. So he has to be tough and strong. He is 1.84m and 103 kg, in New Zealand parlance, built like a brick shit house. But he is also a fearsome bal-carrier often scoring tries by out-sprinting opposition backs.


Big players like Retallick, Whitlock, Thorn and Coles are now are expected to excel at the  traditional hard work of the “tight five”, lineouts, scrums, rucks and mauls. In addition, they are now also expected to have ball-handling and running skills of a back and add to the midfield offensive power of inside-centres like Tane Umaga and Ma’a Nonu, both of whom are built like Dane Coles but who run much faster.

These players serve as an illustration of the way the All Blacks have imposed their pattern of play in the game.  This pattern involves contesting  and gaining possession. In the recent Bledisloe cup series against Australia, the All Blacks began contesting lineups far more effectively than in the past and they began contesting the ball from their own kick-off, often winning possession against the run of play.

The structure of the team, and in particular the greatly enhanced skill base, means that attacks can be mounted from midfield using big, hard running backs and forwards. These attacks stretch the opposition defence and eventually the ball can be swung wider to the  outside backs, the greatest of whom was the late Jonah Lomu who was 1.96m and weighed 119kg making him the same size as second row forward Brad Thorn.

So the structure of the team is built on a very simple principle: backs need to have the size and strength of forwards and the forwards need to have the running and handling skills of the backs.  This means that instead of having a team made up of backs and forwards, the All Blacks field team where each player has the skills to play in almost any position.

These structures support the fundamental strategy employed in the game and produce the current performance of the All Blacks.

Underlying all this are the mental models of the men who play for the All Blacks.  Over the last two decades, there has been a growing belief that this team is the best in the world and that each player who is selected has a responsibility to the legacy of victories in the past.

Richie McCaw said “The first day put on this jersey I just didn’t want let it down, I wanted to add to the legacy of what was 100 odd years before.”

There is also a different way of thinking about the game from the player’s perspective.

Again Richie McCaw says “The coaching team put a lot of effort into growing us as people, and developing our leadership and decision-making skills. The only way of doing that is by giving us players real power over our own systems and protocols, and by integrating them into all the major decisions.”

There is another fundamental structure which is not apparent when the teams on the ground. It is way that New Zealand rugby is structured.

When young New Zealanders grow up, they began playing for a rugby for one of the 520 rugby clubs in New Zealand .

Once they start secondary school, they will normally play for school teams each Saturday. While at this level, they have the opportunity to play for the New Zealand Schools side.  On leaving school, they will probably rejoin their original club.

From there the next level is the North Island and South Island unions consisting of 36 regional teams. These teams compete in the Heartland Championship and the ITM Cup

One step above this are the Super Rugby teams, the Blues, the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Crusaders and the Highlanders. These teams play in the international competition against teams from South Africa, Australia and Argentina.

One step above this are the national teams: the All Blacks,  the Junior All Blacks, the New Zealand Maoris, the All Blacks Sevens, and the New Zealand  U-20s.

The Black Ferns are the top national women’s team in New Zealand. They have won Women’s Rugby World Cup champions, four of the seven times it is been played.

This means that when a player is selected for the All Blacks they could well have already played international rugby in the National School boy side, the Junior All Blacks, the New Zealand U-20s and in one of the international Super 16 sides.

All of this demonstrates the close connection between structure and strategy. The way the All Blacks play the game on the field is result of the structures that support the strategy off the field.

There is no magic about it. It’s the result of years of hard work, careful thought and planning and it is these aspects of may make the success of this team enduring.


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