Sport is funny. One bounce of the ball can sometimes change you from a case study on bad choices to a celebrated visionary of the game. But, the scoreboard is the final judge. It is what it is, and let’s see what the perfect vision of hindsight can tell us about winners and losers in the folklore of the Springboks, South Africa’s champion rugby team.
The holy grail is the World Cup, played every four years. The team to beat is always the All Blacks, but for a while there, they tended to trip themselves up. As things stand, South Africa and New Zealand are the dominant teams in the contest, with three wins each out of 9 tournaments. Australia (twice) and England (once) are the other winners. One also needs to mention that South Africa’s three wins came from two fewer tournaments (we couldn’t play in the first two because of Apartheid sanctions). Statistically, therefore, we are probably the greatest team in the history of the contest.
Globally, people know a little bit about it, courtesy of Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and the epic movie Invictus, based on the nation-building triumph of 1995. The last victory in 2019 also got a lot of attention, and for most of the same reasons. The rags to riches story of our current team captain has gripped imaginations far and wide.
But we’ve also had some howlers. 1999 (the coach destroyed team culture by obsessing over a particular star player), 2003 (the team disintegrated around sideshows, mostly to do with racial politics), and 2015 (where a historic loss to Japan destroyed any and all crucial confidence and momentum). The errors made, in hindsight, are obvious.
But let’s take a trip down memory lane of the three glorious wins, starting with that epic few weeks in June/July 1995, when South Africa was a young democracy and Nelson Mandela was at the height of his nation-building strength. A determined but unrated band of players would succeed despite not even being universally popular in their own country, leaving some of their best players behind, and facing the best teams in the world, including the mighty All Blacks and the superstar Jonah Lomu.
1995 World Cup Lesson: Culture is key Francois Pienaar was the captain, Kitch Christie the coach. But do we remember what happened to Tiaan Strauss (the “other” captain?). I remember the coach dropping him before the tournament began because he was creating a culture conflict. In the context of South African regional rivalries, this was akin to declaring civil war with the Western Province. We actually booed our own national team off the field in a practice game with our local side, captained by said Strauss. I was there. But the coach had identified him as a disruptive influence, TOO STRONG, and no matter how good he was, he had to go. He wasn’t aligned with the coach, Pienaar was his trusted no 2. For the team to thrive, a superstar was sacrificed. The rest is history, with Francois Pienaar lifting the trophy alongside Nelson Mandela.
This is not the story that people remember. They remember a mostly black South Africa not really being behind a mostly white team, but with Mandela’s leadership, racial divisions were put aside and for the first time we felt united as a country. It only happened because, in the team, culture was put before individuals.
The story repeated itself, 9 years later. The outcome was better for a particular superstar, though. This time, three years before the Cup, coach Jake White had a headbutt with the genius giant Victor Matfield while on tour in Australia for the Tri-Nations. Matfield seemed indispensable, his game on a different planet. But he was not fully on board. White sent him home and probably lost the next two games as a result. To both men’s credit, though, they resolved their conflict and Matfield aligned with the coach (although I think they were never braai buddies). They ended up winning the home games and the tournament, and three years later, he was a key squad member as they won the 2007 edition of the World Cup.
So I suppose decisively manage out and take the pain from a certain sector of your client base. Or manage up, and take some performance pain along the way. But what you can’t do is just let it go. If the superstar is not team aligned and bought into the culture and values…well, he’ll do more harm than good.
2007 World Cup Lesson: Momentum matters Jake White was fired as coach right after he lifted the trophy. He is not a case study on how to win and keep your job – he made too many politicians and stakeholders angry along the way. But what he did do was build a team that knew how to win, and went into the tournament full of confidence. A classic combo of experience and youthful talent, the team had, like their 1995 predecessors, a core of players from one particular provincial franchise. In 1995, the champion team was the Lions. In 2007, it was the Bulls. They knew how to win, and it spilled over into the national side. When there is positive momentum, things are just easier. The flipside (ask the 2003, 1999, or 2015 editions of the team) is equally true.
In football, the same can be said for the 2010 Spanish team, who took a core of Barcelona players with them to the tournament, and the result was their first-ever World Cup win.
Can one ensure momentum for when you step up to the big stage? I think you can create winning conditions, but it also requires patience. Not getting panicky, understanding the bigger picture, and working within timelines and resource management so you are ready when opportunity knocks. Rassie Erasmus, Springbok coach for the 2019 edition, worked with a two-year plan, where there were key games to win – but no unrealistic “win every game or panic” culture. Being clear about deliverables and what the team needed for momentum made all the difference.
2019: Focus first
Rassie Erasmus, by his own admission, was not a great team player. He was a superstar when he played in the 90s, but he liked to cause trouble, undermine authority and lead with ego. Lucky for us, the man evolved. As a human and a coach.
By the time he got the job as Springbok coach, things were messy. The team was clueless (they had completely abandoned any pretense of a coherent strategy), poor (the tricky political framework and lack of results drove away all the best sponsors) and divided. A legacy culture of entitlement existed (White and Afrikaans centric, and senior players get to sit in the back of the bus, almost like we’re all back in high school). Confusion reigned around what kind of game plan to follow. Perhaps most importantly, lack of clarity on what they were THERE TO DO. They weren’t there to get retweets on social media. Or to champion social causes. Or to inspire people. Rassie was clear. ALL THAT STUFF WILL COME. But first, focus on the one thing. Play well. Win games. Focus on your own game, and take accountability for your part of the plan. Full accountability. And no place for entitlement.
It worked, hey. Rene Naylor, the Springbok physio, has come to talk to our Business Organization twice. She was clear, above all other things, on the way the coach created a culture of inclusivity and equality (everyone felt equal team members, from the captain to the PR person). And everyone had a crystal clear message from the coach: Focus on the ONE THING. We are here to win. You are here to play your best game. Leave all the sideshows to others.
This approach, in itself, was also part of an evolution in team culture. A culture of equality and inclusivity could not sustain the legacy habits of entitlement or preferential treatment for senior players and a certain demographic.
But above all, I like the idea that the coach said: “I was that guy. Don’t be that guy. Learn from my mistakes.”
As a player, Rassie was part of a lot of winning teams. But he never won the World Cup. As a coach, he did much much better.
All the best, PG