The marker of New Zealand’s success in rugby has always been the international game. The game in New Zealand is said to be in good shape if the All Blacks are winning, not so good if they are losing.
A small world?
Globally, rugby is not a widely played sport. World Rugby (formerly the International Rugby Board) ranks more than 100 countries but rugby is the dominant sport in only five – New Zealand, Wales, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. In South Africa it is dominant within the white community. Before the first World Cup in 1987, the IRB had just eight member countries – Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales. France had been admitted only in 1978. In Asia, North and South America (except Argentina), Africa (apart from South Africa) and many parts of Europe, rugby is a minority sport which few have seen.
New Zealand’s perennial opponents have been Australia, the so-called ‘home countries’ (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), France and South Africa. Although New Zealand has played 20 different opponents, the majority of games have been against these countries and the composite British and Irish Lions. By 2022 the All Blacks had a victory rate of 77% against all international opponents, the best record of any team.
Until the 1970s international tours lasted several months, with many midweek games against regional sides and a touring party of up to 30 players. The coming of jet travel and the professionalisation of the game led to shorter tours, with most of the games being internationals.
The home countries
The 1905 tour established the importance of the ‘home countries’ of the UK as opponents. On tours of Britain the All Blacks played individual countries. There were significant tours in 1905–6, 1924–25 (when the ‘Invincible’ All Blacks were unbeaten), 1935–36, 1953–54, 1963–64, 1972–73 and 1978 (a grand slam tour, with all four home countries beaten). More recently, there have been month-long end-of-year tours to the northern hemisphere.
When visiting New Zealand from 1930, the British and Irish sides formed a united Lions team. Following that initial tour, there were long Lions tours in 1950, 1959, 1966, 1971 (when the Lions won the series 2–1), 1977, 1983 and 1993, and shorter Lions tours in 2005 and 2017. Since 1963 there have been shorter tours by individual home countries to New Zealand. On these tours, at home or away, New Zealand have never been beaten by Scotland, or until 2016 by Ireland. Wales beat the All Blacks in three out of their first four meetings, but have not won since 1953. By 2022 the All Blacks had played England 42 times and won 33 matches, with two drawn. They had won 26 of 37 matches against the Lions.
Often playing a mercurial, unpredictable game, the French have always been dangerous opponents for the All Blacks, whom they have beaten twice in the world cup knock-out stage and almost beat in the 2011 final. By 2022 New Zealand had played France 62 times, with 48 victories.