The first time I saw the New Zealand rugby team I was eight years old. My dad took me to Twickenham to watch them play England on a grey early November afternoon.
We parked in a side street near St. Margarets, by a little bridge over a stream. He and I then joined other tributaries of people on the Chertsey Road until we reached a great tide of humanity by the roundabout. I held onto my dad’s hand a little tighter than usual.
It was in the days when you could just turn up and buy tickets. We got seats in the Lower East stand, bought a rosette and programme (which I still have) and made our way in.
I’d never been in such a big crowd before and as the forest of coats closed in around me, my anxiety grew. But at least I knew my dad could see where he was going. At 6’ 5”, no one’s dad was taller than mine.
Once inside, the sheer scale of the stadium overwhelmed me, as did the noise. We found our seats and I sat quietly as the excitement grew all around.
Then with little of today’s fireworks, out came the teams. To me, it immediately seemed like an unfair contest. There was this group of normal-sized men, dressed in pristine white, jogging nervously onto the field. And there was this hulking army of menacing giants, dressed all in black.
And to top it off they did a war dance before the game, the Haka. It may have lacked the intensity and showmanship of today, but I do remember it was performed to the crowd, not the opposition. It was as if they were saying: “15 of you or 50,000, makes no difference to us.”
Suddenly I understood why my dad hadn’t been particularly optimistic on the way to the ground. He’d been a rugby player himself, a good one, England U18 schoolboys, Rosslyn Park and Surrey. So he knew a better side when he saw one.
Anyway, England lost. Even an eight-year-old could see we’d lost before the kick-off.
Since then, I have witnessed the power of the All Blacks many times. I’ve learnt it often takes something superhuman to beat them, particularly if you’re a Northern Hemisphere side. In 40 matches since 1905, England have won 7 and drawn 1.
What you need is a streak of reckless Gallic flair. Or a stubborn six-man Anglo-Saxon scrum.
Or just something out of this world: “Phil Bennett covering… chased by Alistair Scown… brilliant, oh that’s brilliant… John Williams, Bryan Williams… Pullen… John Dawes… great dummy… it’s David, Tom David… the halfway line… brilliant by Quinnell… this is Gareth Edwards… a dramatic start… what a score!”
The last time I saw the All Blacks was the World Cup semi-final against South Africa in 2015, again at Twickenham. By a neat piece of symmetry, I took my son when he was also aged eight.
Much had changed, of course. The stadium had mushroomed. I’d had to get the tickets six months in advance. The crowd contained thousands of Kiwis and Boks. I don’t remember any New Zealand supporters being there when I first went.
But although there were more people, it didn’t feel like it. We even sat on the ground outside having a drink and crisps before going in. My son was excited but pretty relaxed about it all.
And when we got to our seats, high up in the gods, a full hour before kick-off, both teams were already out on the pitch.
We were the same end as the All Blacks. So I watched Kieran Reid in his own private intense world, running to the halfway line and back, over and over again, each time a little quicker, until he was sprinting.
My son was mesmerized by Dan Carter as, with zero run-up, just swinging one leg and keeping the other rooted to the ground, he kicked a ball 30 yards into a teammate’s arms, time and time again. The teammate never had to move an inch.
Then we both watched as the players came together and did a drill, teams of six in a line, passing the ball left and then right. There was no difference between them, every single player could do it beautifully. It was as if they’d all been doing it from birth.
The game itself was ferocious. If anything, South Africa won the battle of the scrums and their defence was outstanding. But so was the All Blacks' and in those few decisive moments you get in test rugby, it was their superior skills that won the day.
It was a great game to watch. But what struck me most was the behaviour of the Kiwis in the crowd. Throughout the game they just sat there in this brooding silence. The tension was palpable and only released in a short, sharp roar whenever their team scored. As a friend said to me later, herself a Kiwi: “they’re not as laid-back as they think, these New Zealanders.”
So why are they so good at rugby?
They undoubtedly have an aura about them, an image of power and indomitability many a brand would die for.
Their skill levels always seem a step ahead of other countries. Much of that is down to the structure of their game, how it is taught, how young players are developed, the focus on ‘catch, run, pass and evade’. It’s a story of constant innovation.
There are other reasons. They have the space, the climate. There’s a wonderful genetic mix of Europeans, Maoris and Polynesian islanders.
But over and above everything, rugby has a dominant place in their culture, one that is unmatched anywhere else in the world, even in Wales.
Why is that? Professor Toni Bruce, a sociologist from the University of Auckland, says: "Traditionally, there has been a fundamental insecurity in New Zealand national identity. We are constantly searching for who we are and where we are in the world. Sport is one of very few places where New Zealand has excelled on the world stage."
So maybe that’s still the insight. To New Zealand, rugby is much more than a game. It’s a need for Power.
But even World Cup success is only a temporary solution to the tension. That’s why they have to keep on winning. It’s their purpose.