Please note: the original version of this article contained a series of inaccurate statements based on low-quality reference material. As a result, significant edits were made on Feb 14th, 2017 to ensure the accuracy of all information presented. You will now find a complete list of reference material towards the end of the page with annotations throughout.
Considering they’re the best rugby team in the world, it’s probably worth taking a bit of nutritional advice from the All Blacks. The first thing you should know is that the All Blacks diet has changed significantly since the game became professional in 1995.
The New Zealand Rugby Union is widely known as an innovative organization. It’s no surprise then that since professionalism, the All Blacks have been leading the pack in terms of diet and training regimes.
Strength and Conditioning coach, Dr Nic Gill, and Nutritionist, Kat Darry, have been at the forefront of this evolution. Gill started with the ABs in April of 2008 (1) with Katrina Darry taking up her role just a month later (2). The All Blacks’ increased focus on strength, conditioning and diet is rumored to be a direct response to (by their standards) a poor showing at the 2007 RWC where the side lost their quarter-final clash against France (3).
Watching the All Blacks play Australia in the 2015 world cup final was pretty eye opening. While the Wallabies had looked dominant against Argentina, the All Blacks were seemingly overwhelming in the final. The level of physicality they played with throughout the match was noticeable. The team as whole looked physically imposing against the Aussies. But why? To a man, they’re not bigger than the Wallabies.
In fact the Wallabies pack out-weighed the All Blacks by a margin. You wouldn’t have realized it watching the game though, as the All Blacks threw themselves around the pitch like wrecking balls. Since professionalism, players are significantly bigger, the action is significantly faster and the impacts are more intense.
With all that going on, the modern rugby player has had to become an exceeding well rounded athlete. While some tight forwards were able to get away with hiding between set pieces before professionalism, they’re now asked to be some of the game’s most powerful 80 minute players. Back in August, we had the chance to speak with world-renowned referee Andre Watson at a TRRA event in Houston.
Watson explained that at a recent World Rugby meeting, the game’s top execs had bandied about the idea of stopping the game clock for scrums, tries, penalty kicks and conversions. The hope was the this would give the game an additional 15-20 mins of live action.
Ultimately the idea was scrapped when one of the athletic trainers in the room explained that this would require the players to increase their fitness levels by some 25-50%. The trainer said that rugby’s top players are already pushing the limits of human capacity with respect to aerobic fitness, strength + recovery times.
Any additional game time would therefore likely result in a spike in injuries. Under those conditions, the All Blacks seem to have decided to help maximize the output of their players using an evolved approach to diet and nutrition.
In the years leading up to the RWC2015, they borrowed diet concepts from endurance athletes and combined these with short-term energy needs of high-intensity athletes. The ultimate lesson? Less sugar, healthy fats and whole foods are the key to high-intensity sports performance and accelerated recovery.
In 2008, the All Blacks hired a new strength a conditioning, Nic Gill. Gill had previously been working with the NZ Rowing program, helping several crews win gold medals at the ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07 World Championships. Before working with the men’s All Blacks’ he had been involved with the junior ABs who at the time were Pacific Nations Cup holders and unbeaten for three years. “For the last eight years Nic has been the strength and conditioning coach for the New Zealand All Blacks, a period of international success for the team which has included more than 100 rugby test wins and the World Cup title in 2011.” (4)
While Gill is responsible for the team’s strength and conditioning program, his own personal diet is one that now embraces low-carb nutrition. In several interviews over the past five years, Gill has explained that his current LCHF diet evolved from an exploration of primal/paleo eating after reading ‘The Warrior Diet…’” As many people do, Gill noticed that when he ate more fats in the evenings, he was better able to control food cravings and to avoid eating out of habit. (5)
As he explained in a 2015 interview with Prof. Grant Schofield, author of What the Fat? Fat’s In, Sugar’s Out:
The warrior diet transformed into LCHF with some intermittent fasting thrown in. That’s really the best diet for me. The advantages of metabolic flexibility are huge. I’m not forced to eat because I’m hungry. And in the rush of work and life I can choose to eat when I want to, not when I need to. That’s about it for me. I stay high on fat, and low on carbs pretty much the whole time, except in triathlons where I have some carbs. I eat whole healthy foods. The only thing I avoid is milk. It upsets my stomach, so I’ve replaced it with cream.
On the All Blacks’ Diet
While Gill has been with the All Blacks, their approach to nutrition has evolved as well. “I’d say most professional sports teams are now at least low sugar, lower to low carb. That’s not always high fat, but it’s healthy fats. Nutrition for sport is really changing fast.” he told Schofield. It’s interesting to note that in the past, the All Blacks would have sugar-based sports drinks and even straight sugar on the sidelines for after games and practices. That’s changed in recent years. Gill goes on to explain that the squad now consumes more fats than sugars “We (the team) go through 6-7 tins of coconut oil a week. We travel with peanut butter and nut butters for the guys to use in smoothies and wherever else it can fit in”.
Part of this new approach to the All Blacks’ diet came from the players watching ‘The Sugar Film’ a few years ago. The film paints a pretty grim picture of what sugar does to the body both in the short and long term. Reaction to the film has been part of the impetus for change at the All Blacks. But the team hasn’t gone full-ketogenic. Due to the energy demands of modern rugby, they probably won’t either. “I wouldn’t say we’ve made it all the way to high fat, but we have healthy fat on hand when we need it.” says Gill. (6)
Katrina Darry – MSc,BCApSc,NZRD
Katrina has worked as a Dietician for 20 years and had her own practise for the last 18 years. Her specialty is sports nutrition and she has a wide range of experience dealing with athletes from both team and individual sports. She is an accredited nutrition provider to the NZ Academy of Sport, working with many athletes through to the Olympic Games and World Cups.
She has previously been lead nutrition provider to NZ Women’s Hockey, Silver Ferns Netball, Super 14 Rugby teams and is currently Lead High Performance Nutritionist to the All Blacks and the New Zealand Rugby Union. Her other areas of interest in the field of nutrition are energy for life through healthy eating, weight loss, muscle gain, medical conditions, menu planning, and working with school teams
On Post-rugby recovery smoothies…
“The recovery window of 30 minutes after exercise allows you to absorb more carbs, protein, vitamins, minerals, it’s the same discipline for any sport. We often make smoothies for the All Blacks, they are the perfect convenient food choice as they concentrate a large array of foods, are easily made and quick to digest.” (13)
What’s changed in the All Blacks diet over the past 20 years…
“Today, alcohol is very limited as players realize the impact it has on their performance as a professional athlete. Processed, high sugar and low quality foods are kept to a minimum and we try and have natural food; lots of fruit and vegetables, home baked foods, brain balls made from dates, nuts and seeds, and good fats from avocados, fish and nuts.” (13)
Career Timeline (14)
“Before the game I like to have a roast chicken” – Ben Smith
“I always have spagbol” – Dane Coles
“A bit of carbs, so maybe a pasta with some chicken. And I’m not a big veggie fan so I try to smash the broccoli because that’s the only one I sort of like” – Aaron Smith
“There’s a tradition amongst a few rugby teams that the Friday night before a game, the liaison man comes around with some chocolate” – Kieran Read
“I love my chocolate” – Beauden Barrett
“I have my porridge in the mornings with some scrambled eggs on toast.” – Wyatt Crockett
“I like to have a couple of big bowls of porridge” – Liam Messam
“Umm from the early days I always used to have baked beans. I was told they were really good for you and they’re easy.” – Conrad Smith
“I always like to eat sushi at lunch time.” – Brodie Retallick
“I like Sushi and Up n Go (liquid breakfast).” – Julian Savea
All Blacks 2011 view on Nutrition
All Blacks’ 2013 view on pre-match food
All Blacks 2014 view on Weet-Bix
All Blacks 2014 view on Nutrition
David Pocock’s low-carb approach is similar to the All Blacks’
Donal O’Neill, one of the producers of the movies Cereal Killers and Cereal Killers 2 has conducted severals interviews with elite level rugby players and programs to determine how they’re able to perform at the top level without a dependency on carbohydrates. One of his most interesting discussions centers on David Pocock, a flanker for the Wallabies.
When I met him earlier this year in Cape Town, he told me a low carb high fat approach was working for him. A very low carb (<50g/day) strategy left him lacking punch, so he upped it a bit to a level that felt right. To those scientists who scream foul and “this is not low carb at all” I would ask this – what the hell is it then? When Pocock’s team mates are smashing >500g/day is 150g low enough for you? This is a world class power athlete who has lost 2kgs of body fat while retaining lean muscle mass – and burst back onto the world scene for good measure.