The All Blacks have long been considered one of the greatest sports teams on the planet.
For neutrals watching the Rugby World Cup final, there was a reassuring inevitability they would emerge triumphant for the second successive tournament – the only nation ever to win back to back World Cups.
They have the best players; supreme athletes with warrior like strength, who also happen to be highly skilled technicians.
They have the best coaches, who are constantly reinventing ways to challenge and improve their squad, conjuring game strategies of almost military precision.
And they have the support of an entire nation steeped in rugby from birth.
But above all else, they have a cultural identity which gives them a huge advantage over every other nation.
They have a reason to run faster, tackle harder, and close their mind to pain: the All Black jersey.
This week I met James Kerr, author of a brilliant leadership book called ‘Legacy – What the All Blacks Teach Us About The Business Of Life’ and heard his tale of how New Zealand rugby reinvented a team that had fallen off their summit.
They were fractured and ill disciplined when in 2004 coaches Graham Henry and Wayne Smith took the team to task and sought to redefine what it was to be an All Black.
By seeking to identify core principles they planned to implement a culture which would restore New Zealand to the top of the world game and keep them there.
It went beyond the coaching fields, beyond the stadiums of the Southern Hemisphere and targeted the hearts and minds of every player who would pull on the jersey.
As all elite organisations do, they sought to find a higher purpose that would become their prime motivation.
And first on their list was humility: ‘better people make better All Blacks’ became the mantra.
They adopted the principle of ‘Sweeping the Sheds’, players of 100 caps or more literally taking a long handled broom at the end of the game to clear up any mess left in their dressing room ‘never be too big to do the small things that need to be done.’
You may remember a similar story from Exeter City’s Capital One Cup game at Sunderland earlier this season: in defeat emerging with great credit as the first visiting team ever to clean up the dug out at The Stadium of Light.
Kerr talks of a shared value across other great sports teams with humility as their guiding principle: a desire to be the best person and the best team-mate you can be in a learning environment.
Like other great teams have chosen to do in the past, the All Blacks began to select on character rather than talent.
Then, according to legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi, the question becomes how well do the players work together rather than how do does the individual perform.
Kerr told me of how San Antonio Spurs became the most successful sports franchise in the States applying their principle of ‘pounding the rock’ which is similar to Sky Cycling guru Dave Brailsford’s theory on the aggregation of marginal gains.
One person will never smash the rock, but with the help of all of his team-mates working tirelessly together and improving bit by bit, the impossible becomes a reality.
It might all sound like pie in the sky, but when listening to Kerr I couldn’t help thinking of how Sunderland could learn from the All Blacks.
All we hear are negative stories: court cases, ill conceived selfies, rumours of a drinking culture, and a trigger happy owner.
It sounds like a big idea, but we need to reinvent the narrative.
We need to remember what the red and white stripes stand for, remember the industry they used to represent: 136 years of being one of Britain’s best supported sports teams.
Ask anyone what the best thing about Sunderland AFC is and they will tell you it’s the supporters.
But the Foundation of Light isn’t far behind: it’s a brilliant organisation changing lives around the city in the name of the football club.
It’s they and the fans who should be at the heart of the new narrative; working together to restore the pride of an area with the football club at its heart, devastated by unemployment.
The red and white shirt is the uniform, the badge the symbol: ‘consectatio excellentiae’ in pursuit of excellence.
It’s a worthy motto for any team, even one who’s fallen so far from it: ask the players to be the best they can be and importantly the best people they can be.
Success on the All Blacks scale might appear an impossible dream, but we could do worse than take inspiration from the honesty and integrity of their guiding principles.