In what is considered to be one of the greatest acts of sporting humility, Sonny Bill Williams gave his winners medal to a young child after he was tackled by a steward when he ran onto the pitch to greet his heroes after the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
People all over the world were mesmerised by the act.
When the All-Blacks come together, high standards are expected. There was a period when becoming an All-Black granted poster boy status for the newcomers. That was a time when the All-Blacks couldn’t win the world cup despite having the talent to do so. Gilbert Enoka has been their mental skills coach for a number of years. Enoka’s influence extends far beyond his job title as mental skills coach and Wyatt Crockett, the loosehead prop, says the squad view Enoka as the custodian of their culture and a huge part of their winning culture.
This culture came about after a meeting in 2004 to address the All Blacks malaise. Senior management and players met to lay the ground rules and set expectations under which the All-Blacks would prosper. The meeting would last 3 days after which, a significant cultural overhaul would take place.
According to Team Manager at the time Brian Lochore, their aim was to create an environment that would stimulate players and make them want to be part of. He came up with 6 words that would epitomise that ethos. The phrase “Better people make better All Blacks” still rings true to this day.
Gilbert Enoka felt that by taking a more holistic approach by developing an overall team character template and code of values for the squad, it would garner more emphasis on the importance of team. On the generation of the concept, former coach Graeme Henry said that “The management always felt we had to transfer the leadership from the senior managers to the players...... to play the game you need leadership on the field.”
As such, all players at the time were involved in the identification of the required values and characteristics required of an All-Black. As a result, all players were more invested in the process and to this day every member of the team lives those values to a man, regardless of their status in the squad.
Enoka reinforces this and argues that mental strength is impossible without a strong culture. “To deal with pressure you need to make sure that landscape that everyone lives in and on is solid and sound and has got a blood flow through it that nourishes everyone powerfully. If you neglect nourishing who you are, where you come from and what you are about then you just become a team that operates skin deep; we have to be a team that operates bone deep.”
The All Blacks are unique compared to other teams. Enoka suggests that the difference lies “in the transference of power from the coaches to the leadership group who set and enforce standards among the players. When aberrations occur, a player is answerable to his team-mates rather than the coaches. Ego has to be left at the door; there is a rigidly enforced “no d*ckhead policy” in the squad.”
In an outstanding book about the All Blacks called Legacy, author James Kerr discusses one of their core values that epitomizes the selfless attitude.
It’s called “Sweep the Shed.”
While the goal of every All Blacks player is to leave the national team shirt in a better place than when he got it, his goal is also to contribute to the legacy by doing his part to grow the game and keep the team progressing every single day. In order to do so, the players realize that you must remain humble, and that no one is too big or too famous to do the little things required each and every day to get better. You must eat right. You must sleep well. You must take care of yourself on and off the field. You must train hard. You must sacrifice your own goals for the greater good and a higher purpose.
You must sweep the shed.
After each match, after the camera crews have left, and the coaches are done speaking, there is still a locker room to be cleaned and believe it or not, it is done by none other than the players! All Blacks leading players take turns sweeping the locker room of every last piece of grass, tape, and mud. In the words of Kerr:“Sweeping the shed is all about doing it properly so no one else has to”.
“Because no one looks after the All Blacks. The All Blacks look after themselves.”
They leave the locker room in a better place than they got it. They leave the shirt in a better place than they got it. They are not there to get. They are there to give and leave a legacy that goes beyond them and the present moment.
Since 2015, at the World Cup, some might have noticed that during the Haka, the team never leave the ground with two feet at any stage – they used always finish with a jump. This is so that they stay rooted and grounded with their ancestors buried beneath the soil in New Zealand. That they stay connected and united with their roots and their past.
The culture doesn’t change when the game is over either. In the changing room after the match when it’s time to debrief, the All Blacks choose an “off field captain” for each match – often an injured player or someone who hasn’t made the match day squad. This captain leads the debrief in the style of a “whare”, a Māori meeting house where every individual present is given equal status to voice their opinion, to share their reality. From the 100 cap skipper to the first cap newbie, from the head coach to the kit man, everybody is heard and everybody’s opinion is respected.
When discussing maintenance of such a legacy, Enoka says that “The jersey can hunt out flaws as quickly as you can look at it. The d***heads and the posers who are not genuine about adding to this wonderful legacy just don’t survive,” Enoka said. “They become one-Test ponies and get chewed up and spat out relatively quickly.”
Further, he says, “as an All Black, you understand the team powers above the individual and you are part of a wider legacy, which has been passed down to you from the ages. In this particular period, it is your time and it is your moment. We want people to cherish and understand that and nourish it for the next generation, leaving it in a better place than what it was.”
When Sonny Bill Williams handed over his medal, he was just helping fulfil a boy’s dream who he saw rugby tackled to the ground by an adult. When asked after why he did that, he said that the kid will hopefully get more from the medal than he will – that it will help him remember the day and that some day, he too might become an All-Black. Leading by example and setting extraordinary standards in humility, he was fulfilling the ethos and culture of the team.
When we consider the humility of the gesture, lets also bare in mind that Sonny Bill Williams is a world cup winner in both Rugby League and Rugby Union and is also a heavy weight WBA champion remaining unbeaten in 7 professional boxing fights. He has very little to be humble about but he left his jersey in a better place.
Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Sonny Bill William’s awards
2004: International Newcomer of the Year
2004: World XIII
2004: Samoan Sports Association Junior Sportsman of the Year
2012: New Zealand Professional Boxing Association (NZPBA) Heavyweight Champion
2012: Chiefs’ players’ player award
2013: WBA International Heavyweight Champion
2013: Jack Gibson Medalist – Sydney Roosters’ Player of the Year
2013: RLIF International Second-rower of the Year
2013: RLIF International Player of the Year
2004: NRL Premiers with the Bulldogs
2010: Ranfurly Shield winner with Canterbury
2010: ITM Cup winner with Canterbury
2011: Bledisloe Cup winner with New Zealand
2011: Rugby World Cup winner with New Zealand
2012: Super Rugby winner with the Chiefs
2012: Bledisloe Cup winner with New Zealand
2013: NRL Minor Premiers with the Roosters
2013: NRL Premiers with the Roosters
2014: World Club Challenge winner with the Roosters
2014: NRL Minor Premiers with the Roosters
2015: Bulldogs Team of the Decade (2005–2014) – as a back-rower
2015: Rugby World Cup winner with New Zealand