New Plymouth, Taranaki. Students from New Plymouth Boys’ High School (NPBHS) support their team during their maximum rivalry game against Francis Douglas Memorial College (FDMC). (Nacho Hernandez)
In 2011, New Zealand was crowned Rugby World Cup champion. Two years later in 2013, the team emerged undefeated all year, a perfect record, the first for a national professional team. And on Nov. 1, 2014, New Zealand’s All Blacks played against USA’s Eagles before a crowd of 60,000 in what was described as the biggest rugby event on American soil ever, cruising by the U.S. team with an impressive 74-6 victory. From their triumphant stats, the kiwis are playing in a league all their own. But how has a country with a population just one quarter of London’s been able to dominate international rugby in a way not seen in almost any other sport? Photographer Nacho Hernandez, a former rugby player himself, spent four months in New Zealand to find out. His photographs, taken over a year, explore the culture and the passion of its fans young and old.
Pride in their country’s legacy of rugby reverberates among New Zealand fans, where even one loss is met with the depression of 10. Historically, the All Blacks have won more than 75 percent of the matches they have played since 1903, and they have an overwhelming winning record, one on one, against any other team in the world. In the history of rugby, only five nations have ever beaten New Zealand. They have not lost a game at Eden Park, the country’s main rugby field in Auckland, since 1994. New Zealand as a country has sometimes been described as an experiment to transplant an idyllic British society in the middle of the South Pacific. With regard to rugby, at least, the success was complete. Although invented in England, rugby fits New Zealand like a glove. The first New Zealanders who played it not only had inherited the love and penchant for sports from England, but they were also very tough and rugged, settlers and farmers used to hardship. The sport suited them.
Rugby games in New Zealand are often punctuated by a variety of rituals that have come to help define the sport. Mooning? Check. Falling in that vein of taunting is the infamous Haka. “Few things represent New Zealand rugby as well as the Haka. This Maori dance has been performed by the All Blacks since their first international games, but in the past it was a half-hearted affair, more cute than threatening. A Maori player from Rotorua, Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford (All Black n. 860), is credited with having transformed the All Blacks’ Haka in the late 1980s,” Hernandez explains to In Sight.
Players trying to grab the rugby ball at a lineout during a game at Rotorua Boys High School in Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. (Nacho Hernandez) Friendly game between rugby veterans in the rain. The local “East Cape Legends” played against the “Southern Spikers”, Ruatoria, East Coast, New Zealand. (Nacho Hernandez) The 1st rugby team of New Plymouth Boys’ High School (NPBHS) performs a Haka, the traditional Maori dance, before a game of maximum rivalry played at the Gully Ground, its school’s main rugby field in New Plymouth, Taranaki. (Nacho Hernandez) A group of players practicing the ruck at the Ponsonby Rugby Club in Auckland, New Zealand (Nacho Hernandez) Rugby World Cup All Blacks-France final in Eden Park. Last second on the match and a woman cries as she realizes that New Zealand’s All Blacks are the new world champions. The crowd goes crazy in Auckland. (Nacho Hernandez) Players greeting each other Maori-style with a Hongi (a traditional Maori greeting in New Zealand) at the end of a friendly game between veterans played under the rain. The local “Ngati Porou East Coast Legends” played against the “Southern Spikers”. The player at the left of the image is Jock Ross, a former All Black, Ruatoria, East Coast. (Nacho Hernandez) Fans, friends and family invade the field and mingle with the players after a game won by Waikato Rugby at home in Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand. (Nacho Hernandez) The senior students of New Plymouth Boys’ High School (NPBHS) perform a Haka, the traditional Maori dance, to greet their rugby team before a game of maximum rivalry, New Plymouth, Taranaki. (Nacho Hernandez) Players of Rotorua Boys’ High School training the tackling, Rotorua, Bay of Plenty. (Nacho Hernandez) Rotorua Boys’ High School charging during a rugby game played at home. (Nacho Hernandez) A group of players practicing the line outs in a covered practice field in Auckland, New Zealand. (Nacho Hernandez) Kids playing rippa rugby. Rippa rugby, a version of the rugby game for children that doesn’t have contact. Instead, players have to rip the flag from the opponents’ belts just as in American flag football. Tokomaru Bay, East Coast. (Nacho Hernandez) A group of friends play rugby at Raglan beach in Waikato. Although more famous for its surf scene, Raglan’s huge beaches offer the perfect turf for a game of touch rugby. (Nacho Hernandez)