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Lion Kings – Gatland vindicated as Lions roar to victory

July 8, 2013

November 2003, the Rugby World Cup Final. Australia v England, three minutes of extra-time remaining. Matt Dawson passes to Jonny Wilkinson. The whole rugby world stops to wait and see what would happen next.

Coach Clive Woodward knew, and the drop kick from English rugby’s golden boot sailed over to give England the World Cup and break Australia.  The move had been rehearsed – recall Wilkinson’s post-match interview – the last 38 seconds were six years in the making – the tactics and the team selection were spot on.

Rugby is a game of physicality and belligerent attitudes. You’ve got to have people working hard, asking of your opposition, being physical on every occasion when you meet them, making their momentum as difficult as possible and then creating momentum yourself when you have the ball.

You need to be mentally strong, get up when you’re knocked down, even if you’re hurt, and go again. Keep the ball in hand and in play to create space, put runners into gaps and also deny the opposition by slowing their ruck, or better still, turning over the ball.

Wilkinson was the man for that moment, indeed for the entire game. So much planning, investment and hope comes down to 80 minutes, you need the right players to execute the game plan. Who is the first name on the team sheet? The debates can be long and hard, but decisions are made and team sheets are posted. Often the choices spark controversy, not least in those overlooked for the 1st XV.

Ten years on from England’s glorious World Cup triumph, the British Lions were back in the same Sydney stadium on Saturday for the Third and final Test against the Wallabies. With the series level at one game apiece after the Wallabies replied with a gritty 16-15 Second Test victory following the Lion’s 23-21 triumph in the opener, it was winner take all grand final rugby, the last throw of the dice with everything to play for.

Brian O’Driscoll was expected to be named captain in Sam Warburton’s absence. O’Driscoll understands playing under pressure, and captaincy under pressure, he has gravitas as well as edge, a leader with influence. When it is bedlam all round, he has the ability to remain calm and see just what is needed tactically. Not everyone has that gift.

The Lions environment is a very emotional one. The jersey itself generates a huge amount of emotion. You need someone to manage all that. You need a rallying point in a game. You need someone to draw it all together. But O’Driscoll was dramatically omitted from the squad by coach Warren Gatland. Surely he was the first name on the team sheet?

As selection bombshells go, it is hard to think of any that have created quite such a stir. Gatland’s decision to drop the experienced Irish centre was met with shock, bemusement and condemnation by players, pundits and supporters. The finest European player of his generation, a proven performer on the biggest of rugby stages, and a leader of men. With the injury to Sam Warburton, O’Driscoll was anticipated to be the leader, for what would have been his final Lions game.

O’Driscoll’s stellar Lions career was ended somewhat ignominiously after four Tours. Former players queued up to question Gatland’s decision. Some may not forgive him for ending an iconic player’s Lions career in such brutal fashion, cast into the wilderness with nary a backward glance.

Ian Robertson BBC rugby union correspondent didn’t sit on the fence: I was convinced Brian O’Driscoll should have been named as captain. It’s catastrophic leaving him out. He’s still one of the top centres in world rugby. He’s a fantastic guy and has been on four tours and knows it all inside out. It’s a massive mistake.

A fit O’Driscoll has always been in the side for the matches that matter, whether for Leinster, Ireland or the Lions. How did he respond to this crushing blow having been told he was dropped? By immediately offering to help out those chosen ahead of him in their preparation, before going off to deliver a coaching clinic for schoolchildren. Such is the measure of the man.

So what prompted Gatland to do the unthinkable and leave O’Driscoll out, not even on the bench? The hard-bitten Kiwi was acutely aware of the respect and affection in which O’Driscoll is held, and as Ireland’s coach, Gatland gave the then 20-year-old O’Driscoll his Test debut back in 1999.

Assembling a team to complete a particular game, or work project, is a critical task. If you get it right, you can immeasurably improve both the efficiency of the project and its outcome. You need the right mix of skills and of personalities to ensure the task gets done with the minimum friction and the maximum effectiveness. You need to be methodical, and unemotional, as you select your team members. Gatland was clearly that.

Picking the right players involves an assessment at a strategic level before you begin to allocate shirts and places in the team. First, you must examine the purpose of the team, which players fit the game plan, and answer a number of other questions. For Gatland, these were his questions:

  • Which players fit our game plan best?
  • Which players can exploit the Wallabies’ weaknesses best?
  • Which players can counter the Wallabies’ strengths best?
  • Which players have the mentality at the big-game level?
  • Who forms the best combination with players around them in key positions?
  • Which players are in form?

This analysis offers indicators of who fits the ‘big picture’ but also be best suited to accomplish certain tasks. Ask questions and insist on straightforward, honest answers:

Which of your proposed team members has a great, consistent attitude and lots of energy?  Who is more cautious, more detail-oriented and better able to view the team and its project or mission with a big-picture perspective? Who has a reputation for being a high performer when the chips are down? Who is great at idea generation, and who is great at analysing the workability of new ideas given the constraints of the project, deadline and available resources?

In a rugby team there is a high level of interdependence, which means that people with different strengths can readily, easily and hopefully seamlessly play off of one another. In business, you want your team players passing pieces around the metaphoric table to the best person to handle the job, as you do movement of the rugby ball on the pitch.

The foundation of team building is asking probing questions of potential team members. Look for good fits, some alternatives, great communicators and a diverse roster of likely players who can offer a melange of opinions and experience.

Building a team is arguably the hardest part of a start-up business. In fact, the quickest way to kill a start-up is to make the wrong hiring decisions. Getting financing, acquiring customers, generating revenue – you just need to be smart to figure those things out, but ultimately, the success of a company depends on how well the team works together.

This is a fact that most entrepreneurs underestimate. Many entrepreneurs start hiring like crazy but it takes time to build the right team. The research of Tuckman into the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing matrix of team development is well proven.

Of course, you should bring in people into your team who can fill your weaknesses and can complement your skills, but when it comes down to making the decision, chose attitude over aptitude. Therefore, don’t get pushed into hiring people just because it will speed things up. Always remember what’s at stake.

Gatland knew what was at stake, responding to criticisms of his team selection by saying You live and die by your decisions, so we will see what happens at the weekend. If he delivered the Lions’ first series victory for 16 years, his selection would be viewed as bold vindication for a man who trusted his instinct in the face of public opprobrium.

And we now know. It turns out that Gatland knew a bit more about how to do the head coach’s job than many who excoriated his player selection. The British and Irish Lions ended the 16-year wait for a series win with a stunning second-half demolition of Australia in a pulsating decider in Sydney. Leading 19-10 at half-time via an early Corbisiero try and four Halfpenny penalties, the Lions roared to victory.

Sexton, North and Roberts all crossed in a breathless spell with three scores inside 12 minutes of the second-half to make it a record points tally against the Wallabies.  A thumping 41-16. The forwards gave the platform, with a 10-3 scrummage score, including six against the head.

Gatland doesn’t do sentiment. He could see the storyline the media and public craved – O’Driscoll the icon leading the Lions to victory in his final outing in the red jersey. But he went for a team selection and game plan based on power rather than finesse, tactics rather than guile, and picked the team based on a game plan, not reputation. Lions roar, they don’t hide in the long grass and hope something happens.

Such a picture had been flashed from the Second Test, that of George North carrying both the ball and his rival Folau over his shoulder. It was a statement of competitive rage and nerve, which had so rarely surfaced when the Lions had the ball in their hands. Gatland wanted the team to show more physicality and belligerence this time out.

There had been dramatic conclusions to both the first two Tests, a kick to shoot the pot, to grab the glory. Both times the target was missed. The cliff-hanger style bears endless repeats. But the Third Test was the definitive team performance, a Lions series victory and a record thrashing of Australia. Save the glorious to last, they were the beasts of Sydney. The 41-16 slaughter of the Australians was an occasion to be happy as well as historic, but Gatland didn’t gloat over his vindication.

Gatland confessed to mixed emotions, caused by the hysterical reaction to his decision to omit O’Driscoll from the squad. It was a decision vindicated by the win. I think many of us were miffed at discarding O’Driscoll, but Gatland’s team selection and tactics were spot on. A decent Kiwi hooker who never made it to an All Blacks shirt, he is a picture of intensity. We may have occasionally wondered what on earth he was up to, but he showed us – he becomes one of only four coaches to have successful Lions Tours on their CV, joining Carwyn James (1971), Syd Millar (1974) and Ian McGeechan (1989 & 1997).

Gatland produced unity despite making six changes to the starting XV. Their working style had an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm, driven by a set of expectations. With a discernible energy and focus, you could see the on-field conversations had an intensity, yet a focus on thinking correctly under pressure. Teamwork is the synergy of individual’s success, and each team member had a personal credo of it’s down to me to make a difference.

O’Driscoll embraced Gatland, both hugging and smiling with warmth and affection, amidst the on-pitch victory celebrations at full-time. A team is many voices, but has a single heart. Now O’Driscoll can add a winning Lions series success to his CV, his career is sealed, even if played no part – on the field at least – in its conclusion. Any other outcome would have left a bitter taste indeed.

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