Small nations teach us big lessons

Rugby world cup 2015

THERE’S SOMETHING ODD about this weekend’s Rugby World Cup Final.

It’s not the fact that Australia and New Zealand are the finalists – these teams were the favourites before the competition had kicked off.

What appears odd is that the population sizes of these two countries are relatively small. Which should lead us to think that they have fewer people to choose their players from.

While Australia’s 23 million population isn’t exactly tiny, it’s less than half the UK’s 65 million inhabitants. In fact, all four World Cup semi-finalist nations have smaller populations than the UK’s (South Africa has around 53 million and Argentina around 41 million).

But even compared to the relatively modest Australia, the fact that fewer than five million people live in New Zealand looks miserly. Divide this number in half, because around 50 per cent of the population aren’t eligible for the men’s team. Take away those who don’t like sport at all (not many in New Zealand), those who favour cricket (they’re pretty good at this as well), those who play football (they’re not bad at this either, considering the nation’s penchant for rugby) and the number of people left to choose a rugby team from looks absolutely tiny.

In this regard at least, size doesn’t seem to matter to be successful in rugby.

There are a number of reasons why the All Blacks do so well: they have a climate and landscape that lends itself to people being outdoors – a lot! Most houses sit on a plot of land with the space to fling a ball around. Green spaces abound in every town and village. Every primary school has a grass playing field and non-contact rugby is introduced to everyone when they’re only three years old. It’s important to stress that it’s non-contact because very few toddlers want to get whacked down by their peers, just because they happen to have a ball in their hands. There are also nation-wide, structured programmes (cleverly entitled ‘Small Blacks’) that develop skills from five years upwards.

All schools – state and private – have a rugby programme. In England at least, rugby is mainly played at private schools (and as only seven per cent of our population goes to private schools, we can begin to see that the potential pool from which to pick players is a lot more limited than it might be).

Win or lose, New Zealand teaches us lessons that could easily be applied to many other areas of life, even outside of sport. Start people early. Make what you want them to do a lot of fun. Provide the space, facilities and structured programmes for them to develop. Make it accessible to everyone – not just those who are privately educated – to ensure you have the biggest pool of people to choose from. Sit back and watch it flourish.

As well as rugby, what other skills need improving in the UK?

According to an article in the Telegraph (http://bit.ly/1G6B6jA) engineering is the number one skills shortage in the UK.

Communications disciplines (PR and marketing, etc.) are at the opposite end of the scale from engineering. We start to communicate almost immediately: our parents encourage us to talk almost from the off. We’re exposed to books from an early age. We are given crayons and books on which to scribble.

We begin learning more formally at nursery or primary school. The books we read are colourful and fun and non-threatening and all the things we want them to be when we’re tiny. And through every stage of our schooling, we develop our communications skills.

And, lo and behold, there are no shortages of communications experts in this country.

***

What do you think? Should everything we want to be good at start at nursery?

Can you think of other reasons why a nation of fewer than five million people can consistently dominate a world sport?

What else does New Zealand’s seemingly odd success rate teach us?

Lucas North

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