Anybody who loves rugby has to be somewhat bewildered by the recent state of affairs that has led to no less than three Super Rugby coaches and their support staff fall on their swords in recent weeks. Only the Lions will start next Super Rugby season with the same coaching staff in place. In rugby terms, this is a disaster, no matter how optimistic you wish to be.
So how did we get here?
As with all disasters, it is never just one issue that is the cause. It is usually the sum total of a whole lot of seemingly incidental issues, that when added up, result in one monumental stuff up. It is always the small stuff that breaks a system. Similarly there exist a whole lot of “small” issues that have led to, and will continue to lead to, the unravelling of South African Rugby unless addressed urgently.
Here are 5 of the most significant:
1. Personality and Culture bias.
Coaches and players all come with things called personalities. This personality is then contextualised by culture. Culture ultimately generates the rules for acceptable behaviour.
South African’s appear to have a preference for “nice guys” who are respectful, do not challenge the status quo, are “team players” and are loyal to the end. Think Jean de Villiers, Schalk Burger and Johan Ackermann. This preference is most likely a by product of the Afrikaner culture that has dominated South African rugby for so many years.
Consequently dominant and assertive personalities who are less “compliant” are frowned upon irrespective of the competence and experience of the individual. Think Nick Mallett, John Mitchell and even Jake White. Apparently these are difficult people to work with but has anyone checked their record? If they are so difficult, how did they achieve what they achieved? Nick Mallett is still the most successful South African coach since Kitch Christie (Mallett took on SARFU about ticket prices and lost his job shortly afterwards). John Mitchell has taken the All Blacks to a World cup semi-final (no other living SA coach apart from Jake White has got that far) and led the Lions to their first Currie Cup title in 12 years (apparently the players did not like his disciplinary approach – ironic really). Jake White is still our only living world cup winning coach and he is not even in the country because apparently he knows what he wants and refuses to accept anything less.
So what is this preference for type actually costing us in terms of coaching competence and experience? And what about the talented players who do things differently?
2. The Old Boys Club Effect
Rugby has and always will generate strong bonds between people. It is the nature of the game. But when those bonds get in the way of making business sense, complications and problems are bound to result. In the Amateur era this was not necessarily a problem. The game was about the lofty ideals of loyalty and purpose and like played with like and the game was about the game. Once a Shark, always a Shark. Not any more.
The Amateur era has long since gone. The professional era has now replaced these ideals with money. And in case you have not noticed, winning is seriously big money. Ask any of the Unions who who have played to empty stadiums this season or the players who have played for unions that make consistent losing look like an achievement.
How many of our present administrators have run successful companies? How many of our Rugby Unions are being run with sound business governance? Do Unions want to win or do they want to use their position of power to “give back” to the players who have previously served them as players irrespective of their competence? The financial state of almost all the Unions is alarming.
By the way, let us also not forget that most of our administrators today played in the Amateur Era so have very little, if any direct experience of the professional era.
3. The search for the “Magic Mojo”
The magic remedy for all problems on the rugby field appears to be to “try harder” and to inspire “more commitment” from the players. Listen to the post match interviews of almost all South African sides after losing. Has anyone stopped to see the stupidity of these comments? Please show me one player who goes onto the field with the express desire to disappoint himself, his teammates and his Union. This is their livelihood. Effort is not the issue. More inspiration is not the issue. Not even attitude is the issue. The issue is a coaching issue. If players do not perform, it the coach’s responsibility to remedy the situation. But when coaches are “nice guys”….
Jake White won the world cup for one main reason – exceptional preparation with on obsessive focus on the key elements of the game that would enable them to win, consistently. No magic potion.
4. Poor Psychology
There is a lot of talk about players playing too much rugby and the effect this is having on the quality of playing. Most of the focus is on the physical nature of the game with hardly any science being applied to the mental effects of burnout and disengagement (so well documented in business). Burnout is mental exhaustion while disengagement is negative stress brought about by being managed poorly. South Africa’s version of a psychological approach is to call in a Motivational speaker (as per my previous point) and any form of psychological science is seen as “mumbo jumbo”.
While motivational talks play a role, this type of motivation is always temporary and is not sustainable. But intrinsic drive is. Burnout and disengagement are the two signs (states) that levels of internal drive are dangerously low. Play a player when his intrinsic drive is low and you can destroy his career in one game, even if he is the most talented person on the field. Talent is only as strong as the psychological state a player is in.
Further to this, is that no attempt is made to understand the intrinsic decision making framework that a player uses under stress. We are still under the illusion that people can be taught anything. While this is true to some extent, under pressure, intrinsic decision pathways will override learnt pathways. In other words, you cannot put in what god left out. The pressure on players to “change” how they naturally do things is enormous and extremely costly in the long run.
5. Hidden Agendas
Sport is a powerful way to bring people together, especially when it it is centred around a winning experience. The 1995 Rugby World Cup demonstrated this and remains a key time in our history as a result. Rugby in South Africa need not be about culture or race, but certain administrators and politicians are hellbent on using the sport to get their personal and/or party political message across forgetting that sport should always be apolitical in order for the sanctity of the game to remain intact.
In 2003 Michael Lewis wrote a book entitled “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane. Its focus is the team’s analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite Oakland’s disadvantaged revenue situation. Using a science based approach instead of the traditional perception based methodology, Oakland went on to win a record breaking 20 games in a row and in effect changed the way the game has since been played.
There is absolutely no reason why the same logic cannot be applied within the South African context to “see” potential instead of race and culture. In so doing, a winning side would result that would ultimately represent the country authentically rather than subjectively. This could be translated into all levels and not just the Springbok level.
If winning really was the objective, nothing would be allowed to get in the way of that. Just look at the All Blacks. There is a reason they are consistently the best side in the world. By the way, the rugby world is just lucky that USA has not yet woken up to the game (but that is about to change).
Sport is a professional enterprise. It is now a business and should be treated the same way. The players understand this which is why they are leaving in their droves to international clubs. Instead of rising to the challenge, it appears that South African rugby administrators sulk like a teenager dropped by their significant other. Then they watch a motivational video and carry on as if nothing has happened.
We have the players. We even have the coaches. They just would like to be treated as professionals with proper administrative structures to support them, run by men (or woman) who understand the business of winning. This is the simple reason why the Unions that have lost coaches at the end of the season are going to only attract the coach who has nothing to lose. The first Union to understand these dynamics and professionalise what they do will be in the final of the Super Rugby next year. And the year after that. They will also be the wealthiest.
In the mean time, say after me “Yes we can”….