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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Exodus would not spell end of Irish rugby
This week it was reported that Ireland winger Keith Earls was the subject or a large bid from English powerhouse Saracens and many fans took to social media to lament the end of Irish rugby as surely a mass exodus of the country’s best talent would leave.
As it happened Earls decided to stay in the Emerald Isle to much accord, but would his transfer have been such a bad thing for Ireland? The IRFU do not impose a hard and fast rule like England where foreign-based players cannot represent their country, and that surely means Ireland’s talent pool would increase.
When one man moves abroad, another gets his chance to stake a claim as a starter in one of the four Irish provincial teams and this exposure fast tracks their development into becoming a player of international standard.
It is also worth mentioning that players who move abroad and expose themselves to a different culture, often come back better players. Look at Jonny Wilkinson.
While Jonny Sexton’s experiment was not such a success, Ian Madigan looks to have flourished at Bordeaux and with other players rumoured to be assessing their options, Ireland need not fret.
Sonny Bill delivers in Wellington
Were we ever so silly as to doubt whether code-hopping rugby star Sonny Bill Williams would be a success in the All Blacks sevens team?
Having scored with his first touch in the sport, the mere presence of the Rio 2016 hopeful seemed enough to inspire his team to their best performance of the season yet and victory on home turf.
It was not a completely error-free display from the part-time heavyweight boxer though with a couple of handling errors undoing some of his better plays. Williams’ magical one-arm offload in particular seemed to delight fans and bewilder opposition in equal measure.
He has got the nod for Sydney to get some more sevens miles under his belt after veteran coach Gordon Tietjens backed him to make the adjustments to his game.
“He’s a perfectionist and he’ll get it right,” Tietjens said.
Jones on the right path to rediscovering England’s identity
Eddie Jones has been hard at work in the press this week and has already begun the verbal warfare that seems a prerequisite for professional coaches of any sport in this day and age.
However when Jones mentioned that England need their arrogance back, he was spot on. After four-and-a-half years of Stuart Lancaster instilling his highly-principled, chorister-esque values upon the dressing room and shying away from confrontation in the press room, the time has come for England to regain their snarl and their swagger.
The no-nonsense Australian was also quick to point out that he sees it as his duty to instill winning mentality in his team and that starts with the team’s image.
“We just try to win games and everything is about winning. Everything we say is about winning. Every time we talk to the media, we are trying to find a way to win. I don’t see that as mind games, it’s part of the process.”
England will employ several different game plans during the Six Nations depending on the opposition, but when Scotland host England in the Calcutta Cup on Saturday, fans can expect the visitors to play a direct game plan built upon power and accuracy. The way England do it best.
Dragons rout highlights West Asia Championship ambitions
It may not have been their best start to a season ever but Jebel Ali Dragons will feel they can throw their hat in the ring for West Asian honours after they put Muscat to the sword with an 18-try blitz.
Following two weeks of relative stability for the men from Oman, Dragons torched them with a 110- 10 win at Dubai Sports City, which gives them two wins from three and puts them firmly in the title picture.
“We moved the ball nicely at times so although the game got ragged we worked our set piece well and some of our phase play looked slick,” said UAE international Niall Statham, who scored a try. “To their credit they are a really committed team and scored two nice tries.”
The table has been blown wide open and if Dragons can continue their new brand of running rugby, they may just fancy upsetting capital powerhouse side Abu Dhabi Harlequins next Friday.
Abu Dhabi French have makings of UAE rugby force
When you think of rugby in Abu Dhabi, Harlequins and Saracens immediately spring to mind. Not too many people will have heard of a club called Abu Dhabi French.
Ecole Francaise de Rugby Abu Dhabi as it is known in French though was formed more than a decade ago – actually making the club older than Saracens, which was only established in 2011.
Today the club has a thriving membership of over 200 players in age groups all the way from infants to Under-19s, and despite its relatively low-key stature, has grand plans to grow much bigger.
The club’s triumph in the Bowl competition of the U-16 B section at the HSBC Rugby Festival Dubai last month was yet another small step for the development of the club.
The club’s best players have recently been poached by the more prestigious Abu Dhabi Harlequins but with ambitions of pushing the club’s membership up towards the 400 mark, chairman Fabien Roveda is optimistic for the future.
“It’s been a problem in the past but we hope that will change and I will do my best to arrange that,” he said. “We are trying to modify our rules and modify the club to put it in the best condition possible. Allez Les Bleus. We are alive and we will do our best to remain so.”
One reason many sevens players choose to specialize in the shorter form of the game is because they are more suited to running than contact. However with ever-increasing amounts of players becoming a hybrid machine of power and pace, fans can now be treated to feats of power on the sevens circuit. Ben Lam of the All Blacks, take it away…
Impressive Wasps defeated Northampton Saints in testing conditions to win at Franklin’s Gardens for the first time since for 11 years.
Scrum-half Dan Robson scored their first try when he raced through a gap and touched down before Rob Miller pounced for a second five-pointer. Josh Bassett’s score helped stretch it 24-3 to the visitors at the break. Sam Dickinson went over in the corner for Saints but a comeback never looked likely.
Wasps Director of Rugby, Dai Young, said: “We’ve got to enjoy it. It’s more than 10 years since we last won here, so hopefully it won’t be another 10 years again. I thought the boys really made the right decisions – I couldn’t have asked any more of them.”
Meanwhile, Saracens boss Mark McCall has backed his squad to thrive during what he admits is a “very demanding” phase of their campaign. The current Premiership leaders will be without England contingent Owen Farrell, Alex Goode, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, George Kruis and Billy Vunipola for today’s Allianz Park appointment with ninth-placed Bath.
While England and their new head coach Eddie Jones focus on the Six Nations Championship, which starts next week, Saracens’ mission is purely a relentless pursuit of more priceless points.
“Our attention is solely focused on a challenging block of Premiership games throughout the Six Nations,” Saracens rugby director McCall said. “From the beginning of the season, we knew this period of the season would be very demanding, and we are confident that we have the calibre of players across the squad to thrive during this run of games.
“Bath will be a real test of where we are at squad-wise, as they are a quality outfit and we know that they possess some very good players who are capable of winning big games.”
Saracens go into battle with a three-point advantage over fellow European Champions Cup quarterfinalists Exeter, who visit Worcester on Sunday, while fellow play-off contenders Harlequins and Leicester will also look to consolidate top-four places this weekend.
Quins are away to Newcastle on Sundaym with Leicester in action at Gloucester 24 hours earlier, where they will be without England centre Manu Tuilagi, who is sidelined by a hamstring injury after just three comeback appearances following serious groin trouble that meant he was unavailable for 15 months.
“Manu has just tweaked a hamstring, which will probably mean a couple of weeks out,” Leicester rugby director Richard Cockerill said.
For their part, Gloucester return to domestic action following an unbeaten march to the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
“It is going to be a huge test for us,” rugby director David Humphreys said. “They (Leicester) are a team who have been going well. They were obviously successful last year, finishing in the top four.”