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Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick: "Sport has the power to change the world"

Sean Fitzpatrick never imagined rugby would take him to the battlegrounds of Rio de Janeiro’s gangland slums or post-Civil War Sierra Leone.

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Fitzpatrick believes people need to “get out of bed with some attitude”. Photo/Getty Images

All Blacks great Sean ­Fitz­patrick, who played 92 test matches, has lived and worked in the UK as a Sky TV presenter and public speaker since 2004. The 52-year-old and his wife, Bronwyn, have two daughters. Earlier this month, Fitzpatrick was named chairman of the elite Laureus World Sports Academy, something he says gives him the greatest satisfaction of his post-playing career.

You’re the only living New Zealander who’s a Laureus World Sports Academy member [Sir Peter Blake was a founding member in 2000], along with more than 50 other sporting legends. What’s the Laureus mission?

Laureus was set up 16 years ago to celebrate excellence in sport. We choose the sportsman, sportswoman, team and comeback of the year, which are awarded at the annual Laureus World Sports Awards; it’s the Oscars of sport. We also have the Sport for Good Foundation, which has about 150 projects in 35 countries. We’ve raised more than €100 million [$166 million] since 2000, and each of us gives our time to visit and support those projects. Our founding patron was Nelson Mandela. He said sport has the power to change the world and we wholeheartedly believe that.

Sean Fitzpatrick wife
Sean Fitzpatrick and wife Bronwyn during the Laureus World Sports Awards in Rio in 2013. Photo/Getty Images

What has Laureus meant to you personally?

I went to Sierra Leone with Laureus and that visit changed my life. There had been civil war, many killed, children deliberately maimed. We had about 500 children around us, smiling, welcoming us, and they had only one hand; many of them had been made to choose between fighting or losing limbs. We drove across a bridge that’s infamous for the rebels using ­children as human shields.

Two years ago, I visited our project in the middle of one of Rio’s favelas [slums], controlled by two warring factions. The Laureus boxing programme was set up there by one of our ambassadors, Luke Dowdney [2007 Laureus Sport for Good Award winner, and author of two dissertations, Children of the Drug Trade: A Case Study of Children in Organised Armed Violence, and Neither War Nor Peace]. We had to be escorted in there, surrounded by armed men, and wandering down the street was a boy about six or seven years old with a machine gun.

In April, the All Blacks won the Laureus Team of the Year Award. They’d previously been nominated five times. Why did it take so long for them to win?

I spent quite some time educating my fellow academy members about the All Blacks and once they understood this team, the win was on the cards. The All Blacks are now up on the global sports stage. It’s all very well being the greatest rugby team in world, but when you look at the FC Barcelonas of this world, and Real Madrid and the American basketball teams – to be competing with them and being voted for by people like Martina Navratilova, all of them saying, “This All Blacks team is phenomenal”, that’s very humbling.

Richie McCaw on stage in Berlin a few weeks back was an amazing sight. His was the greatest All Blacks team I’ve ever seen, both on and off the field. I saw them play in Chicago last year. Afterwards they came in, the President got up and made a speech, Kieran Read got up and introduced the two young guys who’d played their first games, they got up and spoke, they were handed their caps and were waving out to Mum and Dad. I said to George Duncan, one of their management group, “God, this is all old-world stuff” and he said, “We are old school.” They’ve kept the old-world stuff but they’re world leaders – the way they train and the way they prepare.

With Richie McCaw in Johannesburg in 2010. Photo/Getty Images
With Richie McCaw in Johannesburg in 2010. Photo/Getty Images

Living in the UK, you get to see a lot of different brands. In the old days we used to look to Manchester United as the holy grail of where to get to. Now I think the All Blacks are probably the last bastion of a professional sports team that plays for the jersey. Even Man U airs their laundry in public – they talk about money, the ­Glazers doing this and that. Whereas with the All Blacks, you never hear that.

In Paris, Dan Carter, for instance, is the highest-paid rugby player in the world. He could have been earning that for the past 10 years, but he wanted to play for the All Blacks, to wear the jersey and win a World Cup. You don’t see that very often. It’s very important for us, as past All Blacks captains, to keep that going. We try to meet once a year to talk about the brand, how to sustain a culture of success. Richie is one of us now.

What impresses you most about him?

I’ve known Richie since 2002, when I managed the New Zealand Under 21s. He epitomises everything you want to see in an All Blacks captain: he knows the ­history of the jersey – it’s definitely not about money.

Any management meeting I go to, or presentation I make, we talk about sweeping the changing room. The All Blacks carry with them three long-handled brooms. Wherever they practise or play, they sweep the changing rooms before they leave – they don’t expect other people to clean up after them. It keeps their feet on the ground and ensures respect for people.

When other players get a water bottle, they’ll just throw it back to the water carrier, but you’ll never see an All Black do that, let alone leave it lying on the ground. It’s about showing respect to the person carrying the bottles. And the jersey never touches the ground. When the All Blacks go into the changing room, before they put the jersey on, it’s placed on a chair. After the game, they don’t throw it on the ground, they put it on a chair or in a bag.

The thing about rugby now is that the mind is such a large part of success. Anyone can go online to find out what you’re eating and what exercises you’re doing, but they can’t go online and find out what drives an All Black.

Celebrating an All Blacks’ test win against the Springboks in Pretoria in 1996. Photo/Getty Images
Celebrating an All Blacks’ test win against the Springboks in Pretoria in 1996. Photo/Getty Images

A book you recommend is Richard Hytner’s Consiglieri: Leading From the Shadows – Why Coming Top Is Sometimes Second Best. Why does that resonate with you?

I didn’t think I was good enough to lead the All Blacks. In 1992 most of the guys got thrown out of the team because we were full of ourselves and we had to start again.

You need to be arrogant to be ­successful, with a bit of humility, but we had taken that way off the field, and we got too big for ourselves, thought we were better than we were. We got beaten by Australia in 1991, and then Laurie Mains came along and quite rightly didn’t like the attitude in the team. I was one of the few left when it came to choosing a captain.

Your own book, Winning Matters, contains your lessons on success – what’s your key message?

What I preach is: “Get out of bed with some attitude.” I do a lot of speaking and I try to live what I say. Wake up with the attitude that you want to be successful and make a difference.

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