Peter Francis recounts his recent time working with the All-Blacks, and what these intimidating athletes taught him about friendliness.
‘Hi man, how are you?’ said a soft spoken voice from behind my left shoulder. It was 7:30am, coincidentally on the morning the Lions would arrive in New Zealand, and I was sat at the edge of a breakfast bench in the Auckland Blues training ground kitchen. I was waiting for my contact from the sports science and medicine department to return with coffee so we could have an introductory chat.
In essence, I knew no-one. Not even the guy who I was waiting on to bring our coffee. To my right, my peripheral vision indicated there were hungry rugby players getting to grips with eggs, beans and all the usual protein-infused breakfast delights.
So who was this guy that spoke with a familiarity as though he knew me? I turned to my left to look up at a giant of a man with his arm outstretched, the first All-Black I would meet that day.
Until that point, the routine had been very familiar. I work in sport and conduct research in exercise science. Usually accompanied by a colleague or a PhD student, you arrive at the reception desk of a training ground headquarters, before being greeted by a member of the sports science and medicine team and shown inside.
This towering presence continued in his gentle tone to enquire about who I was, where I was from and how long I was here for. Nice guy, I thought, to approach a stranger in the camp in this manner. But then it kept happening. In fact, it seemed to happen every time I made eye contact with someone from the group for the first time. If I didn’t make eye contact, they made eye contact with me.
Coffee in hand and mid-conversation with my new colleague; players would come over to return an activity monitor (a small watch-like device that can track sleep quality, among other recovery-related variables) from the night before. I didn’t want to interfere with their interactions but they seemed to want to introduce themselves.
Very kindly, they invited me to their team meeting where I was able to observe their player leadership group. Subsequently, we went to the gym. I stood to the side to observe them moving around the gym between various stations; hurdles, lifting platforms, exercise bikes, box jumps, short sprints, agility – again, nothing unusual; no exercise I hadn’t seen before. After a minute or two, a prop walked over to me mid-routine, shook my hand and introduced himself, the second All-Black I would meet that day.
Over the course of the next hour, another 3 or 4 would do similar, until eventually, I had shook hands with most of the squad that morning despite my best efforts at staying out of the way.
In the transition from the gym session to the pitch session, my colleague and I were walking across an empty gym when All-Black legend and current Blues coach Tana Umaga was coming in our direction. Thankfully, at this point, the players had prepared me well. Instead of keeping out of his way, I strode toward him with my arm out-stretched – subconsciously, I had become part of their culture. ‘Thanks for having me’, I said. ‘Not at all, WELCOME’. Tana Umaga says welcome in way that makes you feel like he’s just given you a bear-hug and told you that you’re starting against the Lions next week.
Before we reached the pitch, there was still time for one more act of humility. Outside the gym, there’s a bench where players can make fruit and protein smoothies. As I waited for my colleague to escort me to the training pitch, I got chatting with another player, by that point – it was the thing to do. He made his smoothie, took out two paper cups, split it in half and shared it with me.
Although I had only been there about 3 hours at most, by the time we reached the pitch, I was beginning to feel like I was part of the group. I found myself in conversation with a player about the best way to manage his feet. He’d noticed my barefoot 5-finger shoes and was full of questions. My colleague and the other support staff were all ears too. I’ve been to places where ‘advice’ can only be bestowed by those whose ‘role’ it is to give that advice – not here, they were going to bleed you dry for knowledge before you left.
At the pitch, two coaches introduced themselves keen to tell me they’d coached in Ballina, Co. Mayo and in Galway. I’d later learn that the ex-Mayo rugby coach had been the All-Blacks video analyst and the ex-Galway coach was in fact the skills coach when Connacht won the Pro-12 (eventually, I would notice the achievement tattooed on the back of his leg).
With a brief stop for lunch, as is so often the case working in applied sport, it was my turn to do the sharing. I gave a presentation to the sports science and medicine department. As my own sign of respect, I started with a slide depicting Ireland’s recent win over the All-Blacks. Having been in New Zealand for 4 months now, I knew the kiwi sense of humour would be akin to the Irish one. Acknowledging the victory was also acknowledging their dominant status. After I gave an overview of our research, I was again asked lots of questions – ‘What are your thoughts on this? How would you manage that?’ And on it went. No assumptions. ‘You’re welcome back here anytime mate’, said their head of strength and conditioning. You might regret saying that I thought to myself.
I had time to meet one more All-Black, when passing through the medical room on the way out. I started to wonder was he taking the p**s when he asked what team I was on? I smiled and said, ‘I’m not on any team, but if I was, it would be yours’. ‘Good’, came the reply.
The experience has made me reflect on how we often report to work with tunnel vision to get the next job done – often not taking the time to acknowledge our own colleagues in the morning. The sight of a new person in the corridor often represents a distraction that we can look right through; make eye contact with if their lucky; give them a smile if in generous mood. Science suggests our happiness is largely influenced by the quality of our human relationships – they seem pretty happy in New Zealand Rugby.