Back to Black

The All Blacks rugby shirt is one of the most famous pieces of sportswear in the world: adidas’ latest hi-tech version helped take the team to World Cup victory. Here’s how it was created

After 47 matches over 23 days, the final of the Rugby World Cup saw New Zealand pitched against Australia; the All Blacks against the Wallabies’ green and gold. The skill and determination of New Zealand led them to a 34–17 victory over their historic rivals and they became the first team ever to win three World Cups, two of them back-to-back, in the process. As in their playing style, detail is everything for the All Blacks, and their intimidating visual presence proved once again to be an important part of their success.

Their kit, perhaps the most famous of any national team, remains the key to an image which runs from their pre-match Maori ‘haka’ to the elaborate arm tattoos of players like Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu. The attention to detail is such that adidas, the team’s kit makers since 1999, recently released a 50-minute film, The Making of Black, documenting the development of the latest All Blacks jersey. It’s a hi-tech design story in itself, involving the creation of new fabrics and testing methods more commonly used by the aerospace industry, in pursuit of the ‘blackest ever’ shirt.

New Zealand's players celebrate after winning the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham stadium, south west London, on October 31, 2015.
New Zealand’s players celebrate after winning the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham stadium, south west London, on October 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

Even before the tournament started, it was clear that technology was going to be at the heart of the 2015 World Cup. The new HawkEye SMART Replay system would provide the television match officials with access to multi-angled sequences of play in real-time and slow-motion, while, for the fans, Blippar ingenuity meant that scanning a ticket with a smartphone would display a 360-degree augmented reality view of the stadium and, leading up to the date of the match itself, ticket-holders could even see a virtual view of the pitch from their designated seat.

Technology was also the driving force behind an estimated 100,000 hours of work that researchers, designers and technicians at adidas’s HQ in Herzogenaurach, Germany spent testing the shirts the All Blacks would wear at the tournament. Their job was to continue the heritage of the team’s infamous ‘all black’ kit, while updating it with technology that would make it one of the lightest, strongest and most innovative sportswear designs on the field.

Adidas was not alone in bringing new ideas to the shirts on show at the World Cup. While international football kits are largely produced by adidas or Nike, with Puma and Umbro outfitting a handful of teams each, in rugby the spread is much wider. At the RWC, while five of the 20 competitors wore an ‘official product’ of the national team; Canterbury, BLK and adidas supplied three team kits each; Asics and Under Armour designed two; the Scots played in Macron Technical Sportwear and, perhaps surprisingly, having brought its pioneering Dri-FIT technology to rugby in 2003, Nike kitted-out just a single nation, Argentina.

England shirts from 1871, 1921 and 2005 (with caps) and 1905 woollen England schools jersey © World Rugby Museum, Twickenham
England shirts from 1871, 1921 and 2005 (with caps) and 1905 woollen England schools jersey © World Rugby Museum, Twickenham
Stills from adidas’ Making of Black film which show Sonny Bill Williams’ ripped shirt at the 2011 RWC
Stills from adidas’ Making of Black film which show Sonny Bill Williams’ ripped shirt at the 2011 RWC

One look at any given match at the 2015 tournament, however, and the differences in kit designs from 20 years ago are striking. At the 1995 World Cup, the shirts were much heavier garments, still made of cotton and sporting the familiar jersey collar. The design and look of the shirts had gone largely unchanged in decades, unlike in rugby league, which had seen tight-fitting designs appear in the 1980s. Yet the larger union shirts had two inherent problems: the thick material not only held sweat, mud and water – increasing the weight of the jersey by up to three kilograms when play took place in the rain – but its loose-fitting shape made it easier for players to make tackles by holding onto their opponent’s shirt.

In its 2011 exhibition, Rugby Jerseys: A Continuing Evolution, the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham produced a brief history of the rugby shirt, focusing predominantly on the England international rugby union team jersey, with an accompanying text written by education and interpretation officer, Phil McGowan. He opened his research noting an observation made by the rugby author Sandy Thorburn – that rugby shirts had indeed come a long way since the day in 1891 when Irish captain and full-back, DB Walkington, played a full test international against Scotland wearing a monocle. (He apparently took it off to make tackles.)

Photograph of ‘The Natives’ (1888), whose all-black kit became the basis for the official first team All Blacks.
Photograph of ‘The Natives’ (1888), whose all-black kit became the basis for the official first team All Blacks.

McGowan says that it would be many years before the International Rugby Board introduced proper legislation on jerseys, but that they had in fact been evolving for many years prior to the first international fixture, played between England and Scotland in 1871. The sport, conceived at Rugby School with the game’s first rules written up there in 1845, would receive its “first formal resolution regarding match dress” one year later. “This stipulated that one party should wear white, the other stripes, thus replacing the original function of caps that presumably spent as much time in the dirt as on a player’s head,” writes McGowan. The schoolboys “would make use of sporting and physical endeavour uniforms” forming the basis of the original rugby outfits.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, McGowan explains, the dominant jersey fabric was cotton, – and on occasion wool – until year seven of Nike’s association with the England kit, which resulted in the groundbreaking design of 2003. Nike’s France and South Africa jerseys of the same time also included “a host of revolutionary design features that were the result of a two year period of extensive consultation with players and coaches regarding the mechanics of the game and the jersey’s function. The resulting concept jersey was in fact three jerseys, designed for the ‘tight five’ (numbers 1–5), loose forwards/inside backs (6–10, 12, 13) and outside backs (11, 14, 15).”

New Zealand's centre Ma'a Nonu (C) celebrates with New Zealand's lock Sam Whitelock (L) and New Zealand's wing Julian Savea (R) after scoring his team's second try during the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham stadium, south west London, on October 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP Photo/Getty Images)
New Zealand’s centre Ma’a Nonu (C) celebrates with New Zealand’s lock Sam Whitelock (L) and New Zealand’s wing Julian Savea (R) after scoring his team’s second try during the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham stadium, south west London, on October 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

Each shirt was constructed from a compound Nike termed Dri-FIT – 62% cotton, 34% polyester and 4% spandex – which was designed to be lightweight, non water-retentive and, most significantly, stretchable and tight-fitting, with rubber prints on the chest to aid ball retention. On release, the three designs were actually merged into one, while the design for the outside back position – essentially a leotard – never saw action. This combined design, however, set the new standard for rugby kits to come.

Twelve years later and the merging of sportswear and technology has continued apace, with the Asics Institute of Sports Science in Japan supplying the research and design capabilities to kit out the South Africa and Australian squads and Canterbury providing the England team with a new shirt that incorporates digital tech to monitor player performance. On the England Rugby website, sports scientist Ben Pollard describes the GPS technology used during the team’s training schedule and in games. “The GPS system we use is just a small little monitor that [the players] wear between their shoulder blades,” he explains. “It sends a signal back and forth from a satellite that picks up how fast and far they are running and how many accelerations and decelerations they have had. It gives us an objective quantification of the movement demands of training and the game.” Pollard adds: “There is no hiding – these things feedback everything.”

For adidas, their efforts were concentrated on creating the best jersey they could and, as The Making of Black film reveals, the 2015 New Zealand shirt is the latest step in an ever-evolving design which moved on from the 2011 jersey that, while advanced, proved flawed. “We made the lightest, most breathable rugby jersey ever made and I think it also contributed to the success of the All Blacks,” says Simon Cartwright, global vice president for adidas Rugby in the film. “But it did fail on one front, and one quite visible front, in the fact that we had a few ripped.” And there was more to be learned from the 2011 World Cup. As the shirts were getting tighter, players in the back line positions were enjoying breaking more tackles – but the forwards were unable to hold on to one another properly in the scrums and more of them were collapsing. “[It] was a clear message: one jersey cannot cure both of those problems,” says Elliott Rayner, global product manager for adidas Rugby. So adidas looked to develop two different fits and, at the same time, investigated the type of material that might be used.

BELOW: The development of the new All Blacks shirt is documented in detail in adidas’ film, The Making of Black. It shows the process from body scanning and using special body paint to obtain ‘dynamic stretch analysis’, to fabric testing for movement, strength and breathability. The light blue jersey in the middle column was tested during a Super League match in New Zealand. As the material was not wicking away moisture, it was treated back at adidas HQ and a heat dispersal test (see right-hand column) passed the fabric for use. The first real test of the final shirt was in London at a match against England in November 2014.

The product team approached the Adidas Innovation Team (AIT) who were already working with technology that examined how athletes’ bodies moved during sport. Testing ‘dynamic stretch analysis’ meant that the designers could obtain an accurate measurement of how much pressure was applied to the skin and in which direction. The data would come from the All Blacks themselves who were brought in, ‘body-mapped’ and covered with a paint that enabled a special camera to track the movement of their skin – the aim being to create a material and weave that replicated their movements exactly. The result was a bespoke ‘carbon-woven’ fabric, created specifically to the needs – and movements – of a rugby player.

While the first mock-ups proved unsuccessful (the material wrinkled up and stayed in position when a player moved), the team worked on another customised fabric that would still offer the requisite stretch. Meanwhile, the design team aimed to up the All Blacks’ image even further and, yes, decided to create a ‘blacker’ colour. “We wanted a fabric that looked darker, that didn’t reflect as much light, almost like a black hole of a fabric,” says adidas’ senior designer of performance apparel, Alex Hindle, in the film. “That’s why we used the carbon structure which actually absorbs more light than a normal fabric.” The designers also removed all of the white elements which had previously been on the shirt, taking away the collar and even changing the sponsor and manufacturer logos to a gun metal grey colour.

The shirt still needed improving, however. After testing them in a pre-season Super Rugby game in New Zealand, it was discovered that the jerseys held on to too much water. After 14 months development, having gone from eight options to three, the design the team had most faith in had failed. Back at adidas HQ they worked to combat the “wicking issue” and gave the fabric a treatment which drew moisture from the skin through the garment, allowing it to evaporate, and installed a mesh panel under the shoulder to make it more breathable. In further tests which looked at heat dispersal, the shirt passed – and was then ready for its first match on an All Black player. “It’s the most challenging project I’ve worked on in my 20 years at adidas, without a doubt,” says Cartwright in the film as the All Blacks take on England in London in the first live test of their new kit. “But I think, if it does help and we’ve found a way to help the team win then all that effort is thoroughly worthwhile.” The statistics from the 2015 World Cup speak for themselves. The All Blacks made the ‘most clean breaks’, while two of their players top the ‘most metres made’ list; they also scored the most tries, kicked the most conversions and took home the most points in the competition, along with the Webb Ellis Cup.

Midway through the adidas film, many months before his team would celebrate their Halloween victory at Twickenham, the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen put the significance of the famous shirt in context. “If you’re aware of your history, as we very much are in the All Blacks, then you have to lay another layer of performance on top of the one that’s been before you,” he says. “So it’s not just about winning the game, it’s actually making this garment, this jersey, better than it was and making the story better than it was. There’s a massive amount of responsibility
that comes with that.”

New Zealand's fly half Dan Carter converts his team's second try during the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham stadium, south west London, on October 31, 2015.
New Zealand’s fly half Dan Carter converts his team’s second try during the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham stadium, south west London, on October 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

More from CR

Greenpeace releases simple but powerful new advertising campaign

Greenpeace released a new ad this weekend to coincide with the Climate Change March, which happened in cities all over the world on Sunday, and ahead of the COP21 United Nations climate change conference, which opens today in Paris. Created by Stine Hole Mankovsky, the campaign uses the familiar image of a Russian doll to powerful affect.

Dirty words on the NYC subway

Craig Ward’s latest project transforms bacteria found on the New York subway into strange and rather beautiful typography. Here, he explains how his experimental lettering project came about, despite some strange looks from fellow passengers.

Junior Designer

Consultants in Design

Graphic Designer

Avon & Somerset Constabulary