Taine Randell lifts lid on what it took to lead the All Blacks

Taine Randell in action during the New Zealand All Blacks v Australia Tri-Nations match at Westpac Trust Stadium in 2000. Photo: Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT via Getty Images
Taine Randell in action during the New Zealand All Blacks v Australia Tri-Nations match at Westpac Trust Stadium in 2000. Photo: Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT via Getty Images
In his new book The Captain's Run: What it Takes to Lead the All Blacks, Herald rugby writer Gregor Paul goes inside the dressing room to reveal what it takes to lead the All Blacks.

In this unedited extract, Paul lifts the lid on what the hot seat was like for one of the most divisive All Blacks captains.

WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE

Taine Randell can't recall specifically when it was that the enormity of the job he had been asked to do hit him. He doesn't even think there was one specific moment when he registered within himself that he was operating outside his comfort zone.

It was more that he had a voice constantly in his head, questioning his worthiness and readiness to lead an All Blacks side that included heavyweight performers such as Olo Brown, Craig Dowd, Ian Jones, Robin Brooke and Michael Jones.

That he was plagued throughout his captaincy with feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty was not necessarily surprising. He was only 23, and by his own admission, not ready to captain the All Blacks.

He'd toured South Africa in 1996, but didn't win his first test cap until 1997, and while he had been captain of Otago and the Highlanders, he didn't think that one season of test football qualified him to lead the best rugby side in the world. All Blacks coach John Hart wasn't convinced Randell was ready either, but he had no other option by June 1998. Sean Fitzpatrick had retired, Zinzan Brooke was offshore and Michael Jones was battling injury. It was a twist of fate Hart couldn't possibly have predicted and he came to see Randell as his only option.

'I was 23 and had one full year of test rugby,' says Randell.

'It was always intimidating. You're sort of like, "Fuck it's Michael Jones, fuck it's Robin Brooke." That was not the most comfortable time. It was a real transition team — we'd lost a lot of legends.

Taine Randell at Carisbrook  in 2009. Photo: Linda Robertson
Taine Randell at Carisbrook in 2009. Photo: Linda Robertson

Zinzan Brooke, Fitzpatrick, Frank Bunce and others were coming near the end of their careers. This coincided with some pretty good opposition. The Wallabies had come into a peak period with some legendary players and the Springboks were strong, too.'

The doubting voice in Randell's head was never silenced in 1998. After beating a weak England team twice, the All Blacks endured a five-test losing streak. They just couldn't win. They didn't have the mental edge required to hang tough through 80 minutes.

They didn't have the composure or certainty they needed in those critical moments and Randell's captaincy increasingly came under the media spotlight.

He did his best to battle through his doubts and keep telling himself he was the right man to captain the All Blacks. 'I guess just blind ambition, I think, got me through,' he says. 'I said to myself, "Fuck it, I'm in this job, it is awesome, I'm just going to do it." I had blind, youthful enthusiasm and I guess confidence. At that age you're bulletproof, you do whatever you want — "Oh yeah, do this, go to Otago University, yeah sweet, sweet, play for the All Blacks, yeah awesome, captain yeah" — you take it in your stride. Being a babe in the woods was quite a good thing because if I realised then what I know now, I would have realised how woefully unprepared I was. But I guess with youth and positivity you crack on.

Newly appointed All Blacks captain Taine Randell in 2002, with All Blacks coach John Mitchell. Photo: NZ Herald
Newly appointed All Blacks captain Taine Randell in 2002, with All Blacks coach John Mitchell. Photo: NZ Herald

Randell was able to paper over the cracks until the end of the season. After each Tri Nations loss he could pick himself up and tell the team that they had another test coming in which they could make amends.

Despite the mounting defeats, confidence didn't drain out of the team. They knew they had enough talent to win. They knew they weren't being horribly outclassed by either Australia or South Africa, and with a bit of luck, a bit of mental fortitude and a bit of smart decision-making when it mattered, the win would come.

But it didn't — and when there were no more games left in 1998, Randell was consumed by the sense he wasn't the right man to lead the team.

The bubble burst, his exuberance and bravado were no longer capable of masking his true feelings, and he knew that if he wasn't sure about himself, then it was highly probable that he didn't have the universal respect or support of his teammates and they wouldn't be sure about him either.

The World Cup was looming and Randell couldn't see that the All Blacks would win it if he was at the helm. So he flew to Auckland in late 1998 and told Hart how he was feeling. 'He didn't want the job in '99,' says Hart. 'But I had no option. That was a terrible situation. I took him for a walk and he said, "I don't really want to be captain." And I said, "Well, mate, somehow we've got to work this through and make you successful and we're going to bring in some support for you or whatever." But we never really managed to do that. It was a very young team. Or the older guys weren't leaders. And they're not all leaders. I mean you've seen the All Blacks side now, there are some that are not leaders, they just do their job but they've got no other contribution to make. And it's not something that's born into everyone by any means — it's born into a few and then those few can grow it, and by growing it they expand and help others to grow too.'

All Blacks captain Taine Randel walks away with a trophy after his team beat South African Springboks during the Tri-Nations Series in 1999. Photo: Reuters
All Blacks captain Taine Randel walks away with the trophy after his team beat South African Springboks during the Tri-Nations Series in 1999. Photo: Reuters

Captain and coach reached an agreement that they would give things more time before reaching a definitive decision. Hart also connected Randell with former NZR board member Kevin Roberts, who was the global head of Saatchi & Saatchi. 'When I saw Kevin, mentally I was all over the place and he was fantastic from a strategic point of view,' says Randell. 'He gave a lot of outside context: "This is the sort of person you are and you've got to do this." And I actually thought, Okay, that makes sense. He understood the role of an All Blacks captain better than I did even though I'd just had a season playing it. And it was clear to me, and to him as well probably, that I wasn't ready to be All Blacks captain.

'I was worried about talking to John Hart, who is this corporate titan and he spoke a lot flasher than us simpletons from the provinces. So that was intimidating. We had a woman, Jane Dent, who was fantastic with the media, but was just so intimidating. She would tell me this is what you've got to say and I was like, Fuck, I can barely string two words together. You had all this sort of stuff and so with Kevin he said you're just not ready for it. My first season with the All Blacks [1997] was awesome. There were all these great players to learn from. But going into 1999, I was not ready to be All Blacks captain.'

As the 1999 Super Rugby season played out, Randell began to change his mind. He led a Highlanders team that surprised everyone by making the final.

He also felt that he was playing better than he had in 1998, and the combination of good form and winning more bolstered his confidence. He started to believe in himself and, by June, when the first tests were to be played, he convinced himself he was the right man to captain the All Blacks and carried on in the role until the team famously crashed out of the 1999 World Cup in one of the greatest upsets of all time.

captain Taine Randell shows his disappointment after losing to South Africa's in their 1999 Rugby World Cup third place play-off match. Photo: Reuters
captain Taine Randell shows his disappointment after losing to South Africa's in their 1999 Rugby World Cup third place play-off match. Photo: Reuters

The All Blacks' 43–31 World Cup semifinal loss to France served as proof that Randell never quite managed to eradicate the self-doubt that had gripped him on day one in the job. That loss also brought the resignation of Hart, and when new coach Wayne Smith arrived, he appointed Todd Blackadder as his captain, but continued to pick Randell in his back row.

That Randell was dropped as captain but still deemed good enough to play test football confirmed his standing in history as the All Blacks' greatest victim of circumstance. Captaincy was forced upon him when he was not equipped to cope with the responsibilities that came with it.

Like so many captains before him, he didn't ask for the job, but once it was bestowed upon him, he tried, the best he could, to fulfil his obligations.

But the statistics reveal the truth about his readiness. The All Blacks won 57 per cent of the tests in which Randell was in charge. In the 29 other tests in which he played when he wasn't the captain, his win ratio was 81 per cent.

'I wasn't surprised, not surprised in the least that Wayne Smith came in and said I was going to be in the team and I wasn't going to be captain,' says Randell. 'I wasn't relieved but my main thing was to be an All Black. When I was a little kid, I wanted to play for the All Blacks. The captaincy, that never really figured when I was doing my daydreaming. That was never part of it, just being in the All Blacks was.'

Extracted from The Captain's Run: What it Takes to Lead the All Blacks by Gregor Paul. HarperCollins NZ. RRP $39.99

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