Three weeks ago in Yokohama, Canterbury fly-half Brett Cameron became All Black number 1,181.
Despite numbers burgeoning in recent years, due to the vastly increased number of Test matches played, the All Blacks remain an exclusive club, membership granted only to the elite of the elite.
Within that brethren, the number of truly great All Blacks, or men who have left a lasting legacy, is far fewer. One of those is Grant Fox, a key member of the 1987 World Cup-winning side, who, with the game in the final throes of amateurism, brought a professional approach to general and goal kicking to New Zealand rugby, that became the template for players like Andrew Mehrtens and Dan Carter and others to follow.
Fox remains a figure of acute interest to fans of New Zealand rugby – easily recognised and stopped numerous times on the fairways of Melbourne’s Metropolitan Golf Club during last weeks’ World Cup of Golf, for an autograph or a slap on the back.
But it is his role today, as an independent selector for the All Blacks, and his deep, clear-minded thinking about the game, which is particularly relevant for Australian rugby.
December 10th looms as a key date for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. If a despairing win-loss ratio and the weight of public opinion counts for anything, and a suitable alternative can be found, the board of Rugby Australia may agree to terminate his contract almost a year ahead of schedule.
As an alternative, they may allow Cheika to continue on in the job, but insist that he work with an independent selector – in an effort to bring more stability and continuity to what has been a regularly confounding aspect of his tenure.
Contrast Cheika being dragged kicking and screaming to that table with the attitude of Steve Hansen, who, in putting his name forward for the All Blacks coaching role in 2011, invited Fox to become part of his team.
“He realised that sometimes the coach gets too close to players and sometimes gets emotionally tied”, explained Fox.
“So he wanted someone from the outside looking in, someone who isn’t with the players all of the time, who can bring a different perspective when it comes to a hard decision about a player or a position.”
Fox’s involvement provides logistical advantages as well; “My role is both overview and detail, across every position. That’s partly due to geography – while we can’t go to every single game, we have a strong live-watching program. Steve (Hansen) is in in the South Island, Ian (Foster) in the middle of the North Island, and myself in Auckland, which is useful.”
So if selection is an area of competitive advantage for New Zealand, what of other aspects? Fox explains, “When the game went professional I worried about how New Zealand would fare because of our limited population size, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”
“New Zealand players can easily access the game from a very young age, wherever they live. And, due to the continued success of the All Blacks, rugby is aspirational, which means that there’s a steady stream of young people keen to play the game, and play it well.”
“Our structures are good and the game, by and large, is well administrated. But probably the key aspect is coaching. We should never underestimate how critical the depth and quality of coaching is to New Zealand’s success – you’ve only got to look at our guys coaching overseas with a lot of success.”
Again, the contrast with Australia is clear; “To be fair to Australia, rugby is our national game, so it has that broad, all-enveloping appeal, which Australia, because of competition from cricket, AFL, rugby league and so on, doesn’t have.”
Keen to press Fox further on the subject of ‘rugby intelligence’ I pointed to the legions of analysts, strength and conditioning trainers and nutritionists attached to professional teams, providing measurable improvements in those areas, but queried to what extent it was possible to make players smarter?
“With professionalism, this is what coaches and players do for a living, so yes, you can definitely improve rugby intelligence.”
But there is a rider; “When I played, we were working other jobs, only training together a couple of nights a week, so there wasn’t the same intensity and focus on coaching these types of mental skills. But what we had were life skills, and some of today’s players who have been in that elite rugby environment all the way through, they might be fantastic athletes, but that’s one aspect they need to be taught, that we might have taken for granted.”
Another significant change for players today is the sheer amount of rugby played. Is it too much? “In terms of looking after the welfare of athletes, then yes”, he says.
“But there’s also a balancing act between the content required by broadcasters, who are the paymasters, and players who want to earn good money for playing the game.”
Fox acknowledges the problem, but doesn’t foresee an easy solution; “I doubt that we’ll ever get the balance right. It’s very difficult to align the optimal structure, from a pure rugby point of view, with commercial imperatives. There’s no perfect fit here.”
Nobody plays for the All Blacks for ten years however, without having a pragmatic, determined attitude to overcoming challenges; “If I was a player now, and this was how I earned my living, I might not see it as perfect, but I’d just roll up my sleeves and get on with it.”
“But it’s definitely one thing we are very aware of with players. How often do they get up to optimum performance and how often do we see them flatline, because they get caught in a mental and physical grind, that can be very hard for the players to escape from.”
In terms of awareness of player welfare needs, Fox again points to the New Zealand model being best practice. “We have a lot of dialogue with the Super Rugby coaches. There are windows where we like to see players rested – and I’m talking about time away from the environment altogether – and there is a high level of co-operation between everyone. Although that’s as far as it goes, we don’t interfere beyond that and tell Super Rugby coaches what they should or shouldn’t be doing.”
Another factor is the size of modern squads, and being able to utilise this judiciously, not only with respect to player welfare, but player development.
Fox animatedly points to the recent Japan Test match; “There was criticism from all quarters about cheapening the All Blacks’ jersey, but for us it was purely a development opportunity that will hold us in good stead in the next World Cup cycle.”
So, aside from superior player development, what is it that will keep New Zealand at the forefront of the game? “It all comes back to money”, Fox declares. “For fans and for Super Rugby teams, our model has proven very successful so far in terms of keeping our best players playing in New Zealand, despite enormous pressure on players to chase the big money available overseas.”
“If that changes and we end up having to pick the All Blacks from players located around the world, is that going to serve us as well? I don’t think so.”
“Obviously the lure of the black jersey is strong, but we need to keep being creative about how we generate sufficient revenue in the game”, he continues.
“Things like player sabbaticals, allowing them to earn money overseas while not being lost to our system. It’s essential, so that we keep the game healthy at all levels, and also keep our leading players in New Zealand.”
Our conversation ends on the topic of rugby in general. Is the game itself, the way it is played, in good shape?
“The only bugbear I have is the time it takes to set scrums. Obviously we have to remain aware of safety concerns, but we should be able to set scrums faster than we do. We’ve done it with goal-kicking, you’ve now got a limit of a minute”. Fox’s comment tails off and we both laugh as we realise how he would have been in trouble.
“The point is, it is possible to move with the times and make changes that improve the game. That said, I am wary about making fundamental changes to a game which should always be for people of all shapes and sizes, and we need to be very careful that changing one aspect doesn’t take the emphasis away from another part of the game.”
I cast a wry reference to Andrew Forrest’s Global Rapid Rugby, with its ten mooted law changes, aimed at ‘speeding the game up’. “Really, it comes back to balance, and understanding what it is we’re actually trying to achieve”, Fox cautions.
“Like all sports, you can have great rugby games and not so great rugby games, but I’ve got no doubt that the game now, as a sporting and entertainment product, is a much better game than it was in the amateur era.”
And with that, the New Zealand World Cup golf team of son, Ryan Fox and Mark Brown, is called to the first tee, and rugby talk is relegated to the background, in favour of treading Metropolitan’s fairways for a fourth day in succession.
The pride and pleasure Fox obtains from following Ryan’s professional career is self-evident. But none of that masks his love of New Zealand rugby, and his determination to play an important role in World Cup success for the All Blacks next year.
Looking at the current Wallabies environment, it’s not difficult to imagine how they might benefit from having similar, cool-headed experience within their inner sanctum.