New Zealand's passion for rugby

Lineout during a game at Rotorua Boys' High School Image copyright Other

This weekend the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand enters the knock-out phase and as expected the hosts strolled through the group stages with maximum points.

The All Blacks, as they are known, are the favourites to lift the trophy, something the nation expects before a ball is knocked into touch.

It was this that inspired Spanish photographer Nacho Hernandez, a keen player himself, to explore how a nation of just over four-million people could come to dominate the sport.

"At the end of the day I think it comes down to a combination of nation-wide passion for the sport, tradition, and a very proud sense of having a legacy that has to be protected," he said. "All this combined since the early days with a population mix that seems designed on purpose to make great rugby teams.

Image copyright Other
Image caption To celebrate their first points students from New Plymouth Boys' High School watching the match from the terraces starts doing an impressive Haka in unison, hundreds of students shouting their lungs out

"Rugby is lived more as a religion than as a game. Prayer day is Saturday, and the temples are the hundreds of rugby fields across the country, filled from the earliest hours with families sharing their passion. It is this passion, I believe, that ultimately sets New Zealand rugby apart from the rest."

Nacho's pictures capture the grassroots game - stars of the future - being applauded with a passion that runs through the entire country.

"There are big rivalries at all levels of the sport, and beating your biggest rival brings prestige, glory and bragging rights until the next game. It doesn't matter if is the neighbouring village, another school in town, the team from another province or another franchise of SuperRugby," Nacho told me.

"Ultimately, I think that any player at the top level, or any kid who starts playing, dreams of playing one day for the All Blacks. The passion for rugby, the sport, in New Zealand goes hand in hand with the passion for the All Blacks, its trademark.

"I think that NZ rugby is good at channelling all that energy. The All Blacks are the tip of the iceberg; below them there is a very well organized pyramidal structure with a huge base of kids who start playing rugby at around the time they learn how to walk. From there, the best continue improving and going up the ladder, until the very best crop reaches the top," he added.

Image copyright Naudet brothers

Nacho has travelled to New Zealand a couple of times so far having made the contacts he would need to get the project underway. He travels fairly light and shot the majority of the series on just one camera and one small lens, a Canon 5D + 40 mm lens.

"In any case, my approach both in terms of the access and in terms of shooting style is usually quite loose. I do have some ideas of what I would like to capture or what I think would look good while describing the topic, but at the end I let serendipity play its role and I play it pretty much by ear," he said.

"I try to put myself in situations where good photos can be captured, but then there is also a big percentage of chance at play because nothing is prepared, and nothing is staged".

Image copyright Other

This project is not finished as Nacho is covering the final stages of the tournament and wants to be on hand to capture the party if the All Blacks raise the trophy on 23 October.

But you can see more of Nacho Hernandez's photographs from New Zealand on his website, as well as his photographs of the Sahrawi and his long-term personal project on the Philippines.