Sir John Key: All Blacks success part of what it means to be a Kiwi

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- In the words of Sir John Key, "if you asked someone to name the most important person in New Zealand, they'd probably name Richie McCaw, and now Kieran Read as more important than the Prime Minister." To get a grasp of this country's obsession with the All Blacks, and their importance on putting New Zealand on the world stage, Sir John knows the esteem in which they are held.

Key was Prime Minster from 2008 to 2016 and was a key figurehead in New Zealand hosting the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He adores the sport; he was pictured visiting the team post-match on a number of occasions and he formed close links with the side.

But though there is a personal love of rugby and the All Blacks, there is a realisation of their importance for the country. "If you think about things non-New Zealanders know about New Zealand, then the All Blacks are one of three things they know," he tells ESPN. "So the reality is they know the All Blacks, they know Lord of the Rings and they might know we've got beautiful scenery and we are a long way away.

"The All Blacks are the one thing that they absolutely know and understand about New Zealand. When we were in the United States, there was an understanding there for what the All Blacks are; there are some Americans who are not followers of rugby, but will know the haka, the win rate, and how they have won World Cups. They are an amazingly important brand. You can see that with brands like adidas, AIG and how the brand is used worldwide."

The All Blacks run through the DNA of the country, and it does have an effect on the political landscape. Studies in this part of the world suggested that the All Blacks' win over South Africa in 1981 played a role in keeping Rupert Muldoon in power, while the defeat to France in 1999 was described by political scientist Nigel Roberts as the "final nail in the coffin" for Jenny Shipley's government.

Sir John believes a defeat in the 2011 World Cup final may not have had a knock-on effect on him retaining power in the general election which followed in November, but the All Blacks' winning "glow" did help him settle into his second term as incumbent prime minister.

"I just love rugby. In New Zealand we just love sport. You can see that with the America's Cup, or the Paralympic team at the Olympics, or Lydia Ko playing golf. Sport is a powerful psychology of our country and what it means to be a Kiwi. Most parents see sport in the upbringing and nurturing of their child, whether it's a team sport or individual sport."

The All Blacks' reputation also rebounds onto the world political stage. "All of the world leaders, from [Barack] Obama down know about the All Blacks and their winning record," Key says. "With rugby-playing nations, the conversation is dominated by discussions about how the All Blacks are playing, but there is an understanding with non-rugby playing nations. [Obama] thought they were invincible, they are a phenomenal side."

The team also has close links with national hero Willie Apiata, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2007. The All Blacks were interested in the psyche of the great SAS soldier, and exchanged notes on the "putting it all on the line" mentality.

Then there is the psychology and pride of having a team of perennial winners representing the country. "In the entire time I was prime minister, every time I saw the All Blacks live, I'd never seen them lose. It's a phenomenal win rate," Sir John says. "For most New Zealanders, one of the cool things about being a Kiwi is that our team is the All Blacks and there's an enormous sense of national pride and they bring the country together.

"For the most part when you go out to a restaurant on a Saturday night when the Test match is on and it's much quieter. If you look at Australia, where rugby is big in some states, football is by far the most dominant game played. But while there are more youngsters playing football here, there is no doubt the All Blacks and rugby are the No. 1 team. They've had tremendous coaches who reinvent themselves. Like the Lions, every team wants to beat the All Blacks. They are the jewel in the Kiwi crown."

Sir John has been keeping a close eye on the British & Irish Lions series and will be a keen spectator at Eden Park on Saturday. He remembers the 1971 Lions, he was aged 10 at the time, and has a deep fondness of what the touring side stand for -- that's not to say he is not predicting an All Blacks win -- and hopes they continue to hold an important place in the modern game.

"It would be a tragedy if the Lions didn't tour," he says. "I was minister for tourism when I was Prime Minister as well and if you have a look at tourist events in New Zealand, the biggest event New Zealand has ever hosted was the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the second biggest event was the 2005 Lions tour. It's a phenomenal tour.

"Like the Barbarians, the Lions have a style of rugby, you have the four nations as one, there is the history of fantastic rugby players like Barry John and tough encounters. When they lost last weekend, and I'm the most patriotic Kiwi and I'd never want to see the All Blacks lose, it's great that it sets up this really exciting Test match on Saturday.

"There has to be a place for the Lions. There will always be people who knock these things, there are people who think the All Blacks shouldn't do the haka and the Barbarians shouldn't play or whatever, but look at what the public think and they love the Lions.

"They have been a great touring group and if you look at the spectators who have travelled here they have been amazing and the atmosphere, the spirit they give to the team is fantastic. They are great ambassadors."