This is the bruiser who sits at the top of the pile, regardless of weight, nationality or promoter.
If sport itself had a pound-for-pound claimant, chances are New Zealand would be king. No nation excels so consistently, so relentlessly, across such a wide spectrum of sport as New Zealand, an island nation with fewer than five million inhabitants.
It has neither the resources nor the numbers to dare compete with the traditional super-powers, and yet it does. At the last Olympic Games, New Zealand won 18 medals, ranking fourth per capita (255 000 people per medal).
Big, hairy South Africa, by comparison, was 57th (one medal per 5,5 million people).
For over 100 years New Zealand has dominated international rugby, boasting a winning record against every opponent. The All Blacks are, as the Americans might say, the “winningest” team in sporting history.
Last Sunday, the Kiwis took England to the wire in a breathtaking World Cup cricket final, losing not on the scoreboard, but via an arcane technicality. Cricket super powers like India and Australia were left in their dust, New Zealand standing out for their enduring grit and technical excellence.
Several reasons have been put forward for New Zealand cricket’s ability to punch above its weight, the most interesting of which are those that apply to other disciplines like rugby, swimming and athletics.
One is how New Zealand’s lack of size forces it to work ruthlessly towards a common goal. There isn’t much money to go around, so resources are carefully spent and planning is meticulous. Local or regional ambition places second to national priorities. This applies equally to rugby (Super Rugby offering a prime example), netball, basketball and rugby league.
New Zealand cricket is run by an independent board, so regional loyalties don’t come into play.
Critically, there’s also the political will (rather than interference) to strive for sporting success.
Sport New Zealand runs a slick operation that includes a high-performance dimension that has been in place for eight years.
The system is skewed towards sports that demonstrate an ability to place on the podium, so there is an emphasis on proven disciplines like sailing and rowing. High achievers get the big cash because they deserve it.
In the past eight years NZ $35 million (around R326m) has been invested in high-performance facilities all over New Zealand, including Dunedin, Christchurch, Karapiro and Wanaka. Communities thus benefit from expertise on their doorstep.
Rugby, of course, benefits from an extraordinary culture and tradition of success. Youngsters are taught from a very early age the basics, but a premium is also placed on skills and excellent coaching, at all levels.
New Zealand has also successfully blended the disparate strengths of Maori, Polynesian and European players, who possess a strong sense of identity through their collective might. For all their singular talents, they consistently defer to the team ethic, placing the All Blacks above all else, including individual will.
With the rugby World Cup starting in two months, New Zealand will arrive as favourites and defending champions.
Everything they do will be geared towards sustaining the most remarkable legacy in international sport. The rest of us can only look on in admiration and envy.@ClintonV