Playing rugby union for New Zealand. There is nothing that comes close to evoking the very essence of the sport than being an All Black.
Players representing their country in any sport will tell you it is a special feeling, but rugby fans the world over know there has always been something truly magical associated with wearing that famous black jersey. For a few it has proved a burden, for most it is sacred, for Zinzan Brooke it was a calling.
Like most kids growing up in the Land of the Long White Cloud, all Brooke ever wanted to do was be an All Black.
From practising relentlessly at the family farm in Waiuku on the North Island with his father and five brothers, to being called up to the Auckland national sevens team as a teenager after being spotted playing touch by future All Blacks coach John Hart – wearing that silver fern on his chest was his sole mission.
“It’s an absolute privilege and honour to wear the black jersey,” Brooke says while tackling a plate of sushi at Abu Dhabi’s Westin Hotel as ferociously as he would an opponent on the field during his heyday.
Brooke was in town as a guest of Middle East Touch’s John Larkins at last month’s HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.
“Playing for New Zealand is sacred. For All Blacks we’ve carved a legacy over 100 years of doing everything we can to win the game.
We’ve been very successful and very good at it. What I was always told by senior players was that when you wear the black jersey, you’ve got to think you’re playing your last game. It erases complacency. Playing in that jersey is a big responsibility.”
Countless legends have worn the All Blacks uniform, many more will don it in the future, but it is the jersey that will be always be held to the highest regard, above the great names that have played in it.
Some modern greats wore it for the last time after the Rugby World Cup final triumph against old foes Australia at Twickenham in October, including the most capped rugby international of all time, Richie McCaw, as well as Dan Carter, the highest points scorer in Test rugby history, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu.
“The likes of Nonu, Carter, Conrad Smith, Mealamu, McCaw, they’re just custodians of the jersey,” said Brooke.
“Playing for the All Blacks, it’s a rollercoaster ride, and the guys have left a great legacy for the new generation. When I think back on my 11 years as an All Black, it’s cool, it was a great ride. Good fun with good guys.”
Brooke played 100 times for New Zealand, 58 Tests and 42 non-international matches.
He was something of an anomaly; a giant of a man who stood more than six feet, weighed 16 stone, yet played at the No8 position with the grace and poise of a back.
Given the middle name Valentine after being born on St Valentine’s Day, Brooke was part of the Kiwi team that broke English hearts, as well as their spirit, during the 1995 World Cup.
He is famous for kicking a 47-metre dropgoal in the 45-29 semi-final victory against the Red Rose and his 17 Test tries put him joint-sixth of all forwards, behind only compatriots McCaw and Kieren Read, Wales’ Colin Charvis, Japan’s Ryukoliniashi Holani and Uruguayan Diego Ormaechea.
Brooke was a fundamental part of that 1995 vintage, a side regularly argued to be the greatest ever All Blacks side, despite never claiming the Webb Ellis Cup like they should have in South Africa.
Comparing eras of All Blacks is a bit like arguing between Pele and Maradonna being the greatest footballer ever, but Brooke believes the current crop can rightly stake their claim to be the finest.
They are virtually unplayable at this point and Brooke knows they will already be dreaming of an unprecedented World Cup treble in three years’ time.
“To do three in a row was on the agenda in 2011. That would be my focus,” says the 50-year-old. “I absolutely think that’s possible.
“We used to have the mickey taken out of us. ‘We can’t do it outside New Zealand’. You don’t win 50 odd Test matches in four years by fluke, there’s something in the structure and DNA of an All Black player.
“I’ve been wishing and hoping for another generation to carve their own cloth and the recipe is clearly working. I wish this All Blacks side every success and I think they’ll do it.
Who’s going to challenge us?”
So how does Brooke’s 1995 XV compare to the side who made history by becoming the first country to retain a World Cup 20 years later? For the big man himself, it’s too close to call.
“It’s the flip of a coin,” he says. “It’s like ‘let’s go with the 2015 team or OK, you know what, let’s go with ‘95 team’.
“They’re both very similar. Both would have been worthy World Cup winners. The team I played with, we were a good side.
“We were capable of doing it in 1995. (Everyone knows) we should have won it, we didn’t fear South Africa.
“I know we didn’t win it but the Springbok victory galvanised that country and it was needed. And the contribution of what he (Nelson Mandela) did? I’m not political but I can take away that it helped a nation rebuild.”
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