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The “little black book” behind each All Black: Rugby World Cup 2023

Everyone can recall the anxiety they felt on their first day of school or a new job; they were afraid of looking foolish or making a mistake.

Everyone experiences those days. But not everybody ends up being an All Black.

Just over 1,200 men have donned the jersey of one of rugby’s most legendary and successful teams in the past 139 years.

More than any other men’s team, they have triumphed in over 77% of their Test games. No men’s team has ever won more than three Rugby World Cups than they have.

Their traditions and cultures have come to symbolize achievement not just in sports but also in society at large.

They are exceptional. The last thing you want to do, though, is stand out when you first enter that venerable club.

When Richard Kahui first arrived to camp in 2008 as a 23-year-old, he recalls feeling both anxious and delighted.

“I didn’t want to let anyone down. I made sure I was never late for a meeting or dropped a ball during practice.

The team manager must be met before you can receive your room key and all of the new equipment. As thrilling as Christmas, that is.

The team’s uniform served as a mark of membership. Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu, two veteran players, were waiting for Kahui in the squad room later that evening with a black book that would explain the significance of earning an All Black.

The summons
Nowadays, joining a WhatsApp group discussion will automatically add a player to a call-up for international service.

In 2004, Smith made his choice in a more open manner.

After New Zealand’s 2003 Rugby World Cup semifinal loss to Australia, the team’s new head coach Graham Henry was eager to discover some fresh talent.

Smith, who had only played one season of professional rugby at the time, recalls, “I was in a flat by myself and wasn’t even planning on listening to the announcement, but I realized the time and switched on the radio, with a sandwich in my hand.

“Because it was alphabetical order, Casey Laulala, an opposition center, was picked, and I recall thinking it might not be for me.

“It then got to S and my name got called out, so I put my sandwich down and my phone started going.”

Conrad Smith, a Wellington player
Conrad Smith participated in the ITM Cup for Wellington in 2003 before joining the Hurricanes in 2004.
Kahui had no radio at all four years later. He had to call his closest friend, All Black Stephen Donald, who put his phone on speakerphone and placed it next to a speaker so Kahui could hear the announcement.

“Donald’s name was called out before mine so I could hear his family screaming before quieting down,” he recounts. “Then, when it descended farther, my name appeared.

“My phone began to ring. My parents were crying, and I was on the verge of crying as well.

“I found out just like everybody else.”

A haka

Richard Kahui was involved in the infamous Wales haka staredown in 2008.
One of rugby’s most recognizable sights is the All Blacks’ ceremonial war dance before games.

They argue that it is for themselves and not to intimidate the opponents. Private performances, free from cameras and conflict, are where some of the most significant renditions of it occur.

“When you are brought into the group there is a process and the haka is a big part of that, especially on a tour when there is a group of new players,” states Smith.

“There were seven or eight debutants on my trip (Europe 2004), possibly more. You talk about who you are and your own path, including your background and some personal information. You are welcomed by everyone.

“You compete against the more seasoned players in the first haka. There is a full team, which makes it more special, and you talk not only about the haka but also about the jersey, the team’s legacy, the All Blacks’ rich past, and how this is your chance.

“The message was: ‘Don’t be daunted by it, you’re meant to be here, and you are now the caretaker of the jersey so leave your mark on it.'”

Kahui had a comparable experience.

“The squad welcome everyone into the room and do a massive haka to welcome you into the team,” he continues.

“Just talking about it makes you laugh.

“At the conclusion of one of those emotionally charged and energizing moments in life, you shake hands with everyone. You are not treated or spoken to differently once you leave that room because you are an All Black.

You could eat at the same table as Richie McCaw, for example. You believe that whatever you do is completely appropriate. As daunting as the first day was for a rookie player, at the end it seemed like one of those memorable days you have in your life.

Small Black Book
The essential idea for all newcomers is to leave your mark and wear the illustrious black jersey during your time there. It is more than a metaphor. The All Blacks essentially pen their own narrative.

On Kahui’s first day, Smith, who was then a senior player, gave him a black book as they approached him.

“There are a few things that only All Black players get – one is a black book which has all the information you heard about in the meeting,” Kahui explains. But it also has a ton of blank pages. You must keep a journal detailing your experience as an All Black.

“After the meeting, Conrad Smith offered me his book to read. It included the time, the teams he played for, his feelings, and what it meant. Looking inside his book and intellect was very amazing.

“They say this is your book so cherish it and when you play your first game you give it back and they put a photo in of you playing and you have it for the rest of your life.”

After Graham Henry took over following the 2003 World Cup, the book was released. Gilbert Enoka, according to Smith, was instrumental in bringing about the necessary change in culture.

Enoka subsequently rose to become the All Blacks’ head of leadership, management, and mental toughness. But at first, people were skeptical of his ideas, so he had to pose as a masseuse.

He played a significant role in the development of the little black book.

“There were differing beliefs about the book, but the main idea was that it symbolised the All Blacks,” Smith explains. “The first few pages were about the legacy and gave a bit about the history and what they had achieved.”

Training sessions with Conrad Smith and Richard Kahui took place in Hong Kong in 2008
The book described how a shared love of the black jersey and the silver fern brought together New Zealand’s many ethnicities.

“Then there were the blank pages and it was up to you,” says Smith. You could draw drawings in it and do whatever you liked; writing wasn’t required.

“I began recording my thoughts after each game. I believe you understand how special taking part in one Test is, therefore you want to make sure you want to take part in 10, 20, or more.

“I wrote things from games that I loved. I didn’t write it for all 94 tests because the notes grew shorter after the first 20 or so. They weren’t any less unique than I was; rather, it was because I had my own routine.

Smith and Kahui were competitors for a middle position, but the All Blacks have a culture where experienced players support young players.

“I think you don’t appreciate how much you can help someone and you do it because you have been there before,” Smith adds. “I sat there silently and told me everyone is nervous when I started my All Black career, and I understood how essential it was for Tana Umaga to speak to me.

“That made an impression on me, and I knew I would act in that way if I were in that situation. Richard, a man I genuinely respect and admire, was the same for me.

Rugby World Cups and the winning mentality
Both Smith and Kahui joined an All Black formation concealed by darkness.

Despite being the best Test team in the world, after winning the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, they had finished last in the subsequent five competitions.

The final straw was France’s humiliating quarterfinal loss in 2007. There has to be a change.

Smith, a veteran of all three competitions, claimed that the team from 2007 was just as good, if not better, than the ones [who won the World Cup] in 2011 and 2015.

We simply weren’t as mentally prepared or as well-equipped for a World Cup as we were in 2011 and 2015.

“We saw there were shortcomings in World Cups related to that, and we had to change that. Even if the attitude we had was excellent for maintaining the All Blacks’ standard, we still needed to change it for a World Cup.

“We had to recognise the uniqueness of a tournament can throw up new challenges.”

Smith and Kahui both started the most stressful rugby match in New Zealand history in 2011, which was a challenge that would have tested even the best-prepared team.

They played the same opposition in the final on their home field four years after their shocking loss to the French in the round of eight. A win would put an end to a 24-year wait for the game’s top prize.

“We worked hard on things like mental skill stuff – staying in the blue and not the red,” Kahui explains. “Blue means remaining composed and in the now, not worrying about the result. When you are considering “what if,” the color red represents negative ideas.

Few had given what actually occurred much thought.

First- and second-choice fly-halves Dan Carter and Colin Slade were both sidelined by injuries. The All Blacks’ third-choice starting ten, Aaron Cruden, left the game after 34 minutes as well.

Here comes Kahui’s old pal. Donald, who weighed half a stone more than he should, was whitebait fishing in the Waikato River when Henry called and invited him to join the team before the semi-finals.

It was now up to him to bring home the World Cup while wearing a jersey that was several sizes too small and bearing the enormous weight of a nation’s expectations.

Donald dutifully made a crucial penalty shot to secure the tense 8-7 victory.

World Cup with Richard Kahui and Stephen Donald
Kahui and Stephen Donald (second from left) played for Waikato and the Chiefs together from 2007 to 2011. Kahui claims that the lessons learned from a string of World Cup failures—that the competition required an additional level of preparation and mental toughness—paid off.

“In training, in 2009 and 2010, we did scenario training where he lost two fly-halves,” he recounts.

“So when we lost three in 2011, it felt like we were ready for it.

Looking back, I can see how much preparation went into the World Cup victory. It lasts longer than a year. You have four years to do it correctly. The leadership and staff team’s planning was outstanding.

Smith and Kahui have both recently retired.

Their renowned black jerseys need new keepers, and new legacies need to be created.

The upcoming two weeks will demonstrate whether or not a record-breaking fourth World Cup and yet another illustrious All Black chapter will appear in their own black books.

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