All Blacks' Game of Thrones - back seat tradition

17:00, Jul 26 2014
Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu
BACK SEAT: Where the All Blacks sit on the team bus is one of the great traditions around the team that continues to survive. Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu wave to fans from the team bus.

Reproduced with permission from ifLegends in Blackbf  by Tom Johnson with Andy Martin and Geoff Watson. Published by Penguin Group NZ. RRP $40.00. Copyright © Tom Johnson, Andy Martin and Geoff Watson, 2014. Available nationwide.

It's a place that has been central to the All Blacks' domination of world rugby, a place where tactics have been spawned, standards set and discipline dished out.

It's the back seat of the team bus, where seats are filled according to seniority, and positions are treasured.

It's a ritual that has survived the test of time, though there have been tinkerings along the way, especially to accommodate the demands of the professional era.

Respected Hawke's Bay rugby administrator Dr Tom Johnson, a former All Blacks trialist, has co-authored Legends In Black, interviewing some of the greats of the Kiwi game to try to unravel some of the secrets of the team's culture and remarkable success.

They didn't hold back when he confronted them regarding the seating arrangements on the team bus down the years.


Johnson told Fairfax Media that his interviews with the players, particularly from the earlier eras, confirmed that the back seat system had evolved out of necessity. That was because "there was no formal induction system for All Blacks where they were told what was expected of them".

The senior players took it upon themselves to sort out important issues and the back seat mentality "overcame a weakness of the leadership in the All Blacks".

That had been addressed by management in modern times but the back seat had survived and thrived.

"The All Blacks have shown themselves to be perpetual learners … it's how you end up solving problems," Johnson said.

Here are the players views:


1957-71 / 55 tests / captain / manager

When we were there, it was an agreement, the rite of the back seat - but you had to fight your way into it. You had to achieve it. Somebody either got dropped, and then you got in there before somebody else, or there was a dispute over it that was usually sorted out between the players concerned.

When I went back as a manager, it was done on seniority in the team, and they all had their rituals. The captain had to sit down the front and the back seat was Zinzan Brooke, Mike Brewer and Richard Loe, because they were the oldest All Blacks.

When we went away in 1960, we had a Catholic player in the back seat - so that set a tradition. We ended up with Earle Kirton, and because he was the only Catholic in the team in 1967, we also ended up with him in the back seat and he loved it. So there were traditions, but they weren't the same from era to era or anything. The traditions changed over time.

It was usually the "elderly" players that were in there, but there was always a challenge for it. Kel Tremain and I were in there for years - I went in there at a very young age. I wasn't in there in my first year, but we had a little bit of a tutu and one or two disputes! We were on our way to a flash dinner after a game, and another player (who shall be nameless) and I, we'd ripped our shirts a fair bit. When we got there old Bill Craddock (and old Bill, a former chairman and long-time member of the NZRFU, was the most jovial, good-humoured old guy) said, "Get a taxi - you'd better go back and get dressed up again and put another shirt on together."

I didn't go into the back seat, but this guy was in the back seat and I thought, ‘When we get back from this taxi, before we get changed, we should sort this out.' He didn't want a bar of it and so I thought, ‘Well I've had a victory here.' I felt pretty good at that.


1958-64 / 22 tests / captain

I never wanted to be in the back seat and wasn't. That wasn't something I saw as a necessary requirement. I had limited regard for those who considered themselves special and wanted to sit in the back seat. There was no way I had ever been invited. I wasn't a "back-seat boy" in terms of my make-up and beliefs and behaviour.

I didn't despise them - I just saw it as a bit of a joke, really. It went too far in some teams, I think. During the Whineray era, we didn't really need those sorts of disciplines anyway. Standards were set by the manager, coach and skipper, and while there were some outstanding All Blacks who were seen as senior players, they were part of the team. There were no "celebrities" in the teams that I played in; everybody was seen as equals. The skipper set the standards and we were blessed with somebody who had huge ability.


1963-71 / 25 tests / captain / manager / coach / selector

The guys in the back seat had a large part to play in terms of discipline around the sort of things that we did as a team socially - and more than that, in some aspects. The back seat was a very, very strong protocol when we played and has continued to today.

When I have worked with the team in recent years, it's been exactly the same as it ever was. I nearly got to the back seat myself in my time, and would've been in it, but I became captain and so I got shunted up the front again! But I was able to be a "guest" in the back seat on the way home from the games, which I enjoyed.

You learnt to be strong real quick, to be seen and not heard. I think that's why many players over the years have only ever played one or two tests for New Zealand, not necessarily because of purely rugby skills but because they didn't cope with a whole lot of other things.

It was tough going. You either sank or swam, and I guess you could say that the strong people come to the surface - or the strong get better and the weak get worse. That's the way it was all the times when I played, pretty much.

Ian Kirkpatrick 1967-77, 39 tests, captain It was a seniority thing. I don't know how far back it went, but the back seat was a great part of the team's history. I didn't really have to be told too much about All Blacks history. I knew about every team since the war, through an interest in the history of the game, and what it meant.

It was a culture that set things in place, that straight away created a good environment, and a respected environment. The back-seat tradition put you in your place. If you were a young guy, you kept quiet, did as you were told and spoke when you were asked to speak.


1972-85 / 41 tests / captain

That was an important part of the internal disciplines of the team. I grew up in the post-war era during the 1950s and 1960s, and heard a lot about that old era. I was probably thought to be a little bit maverick and "new generational" in the 1970s and 1980s.

The All Black touring teams I played for during that time were very influenced by the back seat. It removed the captain, coach and management from the day-to-day discipline of the team and it preserved traditions. I thought that was very important and it did maintain a very efficient and highly respected part of All Blacks rugby - I believe that is still the case today. Protocols were important.

I was in the back seat for perhaps 10 years. We didn't have people going to the game or to training with their headphones on listening to rap music. You need to be able to talk to the guy that's sitting next you about things like the weather, changes that may be happening, or things that just come into your head about the game that you're preparing for.

You can't do that if the bloke you want to talk to is bopping up and down with his rap music on. That's something that the back seat of the bus in my day would have dealt with.


1977-85 / 35 tests / captain

I wasn't so much aware of it until I got on the bus to go out to the airport and got a call from Bryan Williams to come down to the back of the bus. I was right up the front then, one of the new boys, and in the back were Brad Johnstone, Dougie Bruce, Bruce Robertson and Bryan Williams.

He asked the question, "What does being in the All Blacks mean to you?" and I told him what I thought. Then he said, "What are you going to do to contribute to this team?"

It was a very, very sobering and quite daunting prospect for a not-so-young, but inexperienced, player to go and see these guys for whom I had (and still have) a huge amount of respect. They did that with all the new boys, and they went through the same routine.

There was no question as to who was in charge, and what their expectations of you were in making this team. It wasn't that you'd made it; you had a lot of work to do.


1985-90 / 22 tests / captain

When I made the All Blacks, the back seat - Andy Haden, Dave Loveridge and guys of that mould - were seen as respected old-timers. I thought the back seat was fantastic.

The players, if they wanted to air any dirty washing, could go and talk to the back seat because there was deep respect for these players - that is, when players wanted to talk to somebody or sort out problems without having to go through coaches or management. Or the senior players could drag you to the back seat and say, "Pull your head in, otherwise we're going to sort it out."

As time moved on, and when I started captaining the team, we lost a little bit of respect for the back seat from some of our younger players, and likewise the players might have lost respect from the people in the back seat.

The back seat was, when I first made it, a good thing. I never sat in the back seat at all, whether I was playing for Auckland or North Harbour. I just watched what they did, and sometimes I didn't agree with some of the things they did in my era.

We talked about that with senior players, and then we moved on and sorted it out: "What's on tour, stays on tour." Now, rather than having one or two captains, they've got five or six leaders - leadership groups have taken over from the back seat. The senior players maybe still sit up the back of the bus, but they don't have the back-seat mentality.


Coach 1991, 1996-99 / assistant coach 1987

There was one ritual to which I was really opposed in the professional era and that was the back-seat concept, because when I had been with the All Blacks as a selector or a co-coach in 1991, I saw some things which weren't good in terms of guys getting smashed up. I thought, "There's no place for that." In the professional era I canned that. I didn't can the back seat and the overall principle, because I could understand that: that was part of the great tradition of guys earning the back seat.

But the business of "attacking the back seat" for the right to sit there and some of the things that went on, I did can those. I'm pleased I did, because they're the sorts of things that in the professional era, if people had seen that and everything became public . . . you could get away with these things in the amateur era.

At the 1991 World Cup there were a couple of guys smashed up one night as a result of a back-seat altercation. Well, the media let it go, but today there would be no chance of that; they wouldn't let anything like that go. In the professional environment we had to understand that rituals and tradition were important, and we've got to ensure the tradition is kept, but not some of the outdated rituals. I thought we had too many.

Where do they fit in the new game, where you are now public property, you are being paid money, and people think they own you because of that? The back seat was fundamental to the whole tradition of the game.

They supported the captain, and they were an internal discipline mechanism. That was fine, and I never impacted on the back seat. I impacted on the way some of the things might have been done. The players understood that eventually. There'd be a few who rebelled, stood up against it early on, but it wouldn't be a good look getting off the bus with your shirt ripped open, you couldn't do it any longer.


1971-76 / 4 tests / 1992-1997 coach

Every team has its own forms of induction, which I always believed should be character-building and about teaching the new players the responsibilities they faced, about standards, performance, behaviour and all the rest of it.

The back of the bus was always an "earned" position, one that had to be respected absolutely and never questioned, such was that authority of the All Blacks. The All Blacks expect to command wherever they go - on the field, off the field, in whatever they do.

The back seat was just part of that, that we as young players had to learn. I was very happy for the young players, when I coached, to learn the hard way. If you were lucky enough to get invited to the back seat for a "christening" - drinks or whatever, you were favoured; you were obviously liked by them, because they didn't have you up there if they didn't like you and if they didn't think you were worth it. So that was a great honour.


1980-85 / 17 tests / coach / assistant coach

Our leadership model is based on the back-seat tradition and it is one of the positive legacies we will leave behind. It was the binge drinking and bad social behaviour arising from that which was a negative and has (largely) been stamped out.

We tried to take the model and apply it to our leadership group. Selection of that group generally is done according to experience, but it is on merit as well. Most of our leadership group by default consists of our most experienced players, because they are also our best players, and one of the first jobs in the leadership group is to be the best player on the field in your position. So that's pretty similar to how the back seat was established.

Leadership within a team grows from a belief that people rise to a challenge if they see it. Our players play a massive role in every part of All Blacks life. We have very few unilateral decisions made. In our team, decisions are done collectively through an alignment between management and players and that's led by the back seat or the leadership group.

Sunday Star Times