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Ten years on, how a vision with a back-to-front planning process shaped England’s rugby world cup winning team

November 11, 2013

Few England fans will ever forget that final passage of play from the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final – the lineout take from Lewis Moody, the break from Matt Dawson, Jonny Wilkinson standing in the pocket. Then there was Ian Robertson’s iconic commentary – He drops for World Cup glory. It’s over. He’s done it.

On 22 November, it will be 10 years since England lifted the Webb Ellis Cup. Captain Martin Johnson became the first player to lead a northern hemisphere side to the world title.  Wilkinson’s last-gasp effort was all that separated the sides after 100 minutes of rugby and a dramatic extra-time finale.

I don’t think I’ve ever shouted at the television as much as I did that day, although maybe the Coronation Street episode when Jack Duckworth died came close. Australia battled hard and were never out of the game but ultimately fell just short.  The Wallabies started strongly when Tuqiri out-jumped Jason Robinson to a huge Stephen Larkham bomb with just six minutes on the clock, but three Wilkinson penalties soon silenced the home support.

In the pouring rain, both sides chose to keep the ball in hand and as the game progressed, so the England pack began to dominate.  With just 10 minutes of the first half left, Ben Kay knocked on with the try-line beckoning. Minutes later, England silenced the doubters when Jason Robinson magically scuttled over wide on the left after a powerful midfield burst from Lawrence Dallaglio. Jason jumps up and punches the ball into the air. Queue mayhem.

The men in white started the second half as they had finished the first. Johnson led from the front with a towering performance and Dallaglio and flanker Richard Hill out thought and out scrapped the Aussies down the middle of the pitch.  But just as England looked likely to pull away, two careless penalties allowed Elton Flatley to bring his side back within touching distance.

Lancastrian Will Greenwood knocked on inside the Aussie 22 and Wilkinson missed a drop goal as the match entered a tense closing quarter.  Runs from the powerful Stirling Mortlock and ebullient George Smith pushed England back into their own half, and as referee Andre Watson prepared to blow for full time, Flatley slotted his third kick of the half to push the match into extra time.

People seem to forget the composure and mental-toughness Flatley had at that moment, ultimately lost in the euphoria of England’s victory, but it was an awesome kick under extreme pressure. Four times Flatley put the ball between the posts, a fine personal game from the inside-centre, but ultimately on the losing side.

Now the players looked understandably exhausted and when Wilkinson and Flatley again swapped penalties in extra-time, the match looked to be heading into sudden death. Then, just 38 second of extra-time remaining, and everything going to plan. Two breaks up field, then a long pass, Dawson to Wilkinson, who shapes up confidently, and with his non-dominant kicking right foot calmly bangs over the match winner. The World Cup winner. England, World Champions.

For the record:

  • 6 mins: Tuqiri try puts Australia ahead
  • 38 mins: Robinson scores a try after three Wilkinson penalties to put England 14-5 ahead
  • 80 mins: The hosts haul themselves back level with Flatley’s last-gasp penalty, 14-14
  • 82 mins: Wilkinson’s penalty gives England an extra-time advantage
  • 97 mins: Flatley strikes again to equalise at 17-17
  • 100 mins: Wilkinson’s drop goal wins England the World Cup, 20-17

England: J Lewsey, J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; T Woodman, S Thompson, P Vickery; M Johnson; (captain), B Kay; Richard Hill, N Back, L Dallaglio. Replacements: D West, J Leonard, M Corry, L Moody, K Bracken, M Catt, I Balshaw.

Rugby is a physical game – former England hooker Brian Moore once said If you can’t take a punch, you should play table tennis – but it’s not all about bashing and brawn, there’s plenty of guile and planning. At the margin, with 38 seconds to go, this win had everything to do with composure and planning.

As in sport, it’s the same in business, the ability to remain composed is vital, the capacity to make the right decisions when under pressure differentiates leaders in good times and bad. Composure is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but in the frenzy of the storm, holding your nerve, keeping focus and stopping the blood rushing to the head enable you to put your training into practice, and that’s just what England did.

England had a phrase in the 2003 World Cup – T-CUP – Thinking-Correctly-Under-Pressure – for those pivotal under-pressure moments, and they took that from the training ground into the heat of the game. When interviewed after the match, Wilkinson was asked if he’d been nervous, one swing of his trusted boot and England were World Champions? Not really he replied, the last 38 seconds had been six years in the making.

Under Clive Woodward, England had a new focus to their preparation. They had a vision, and worked backwards from that, what did they need to do to be World Champions? Leaving nothing to chance, they prepared for that moment – in the last few minutes of the final, close to the opposition posts, scores level, what’s the move that gives us the opportunity to win?

Watch the video of the move – Johnson, Dawson, Catt and Greenwood all took the planning and learning from the training ground, and with discipline and composure, got the ball to Jonny. The move had been rehearsed many, many times over the last six years, and they made it count when it mattered most.

Nothing gives you more advantage over another person in the heat of competition as to remain unruffled and think about your plan. Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning the outcome we would aspire. It requires persistence, vision, self-belief and patience. Being persistent requires constant thinking and developing an agile plan to accomplish our goals as the situation changes – a plan doesn’t require detailed steps, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are always progressing towards accomplishing our goals.

Our mettle is tested as pressure-filled situations create doubt. Having doubt is a natural reaction, which we all experience. But being composed and having a direction and destination we believe in is what helps us to endure and overcome anxiety in the moment. Without having a direction, your head is filled with a box of frogs, all sorts of stuff going off all over the place, and you’ve no chance of making the right decision. Dare to believe you can be the best, if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there. But do plan ahead – it wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.

From this vision, Woodward instilled a new thinking into the players, detailing the individual and team development principles he thought essential for a successful team:

Teamship At Woodward’s first training session with the England squad they did nothing but establish the teamship rules for being part of the squad.  Woodward took the time to get the team sorted out first, to establish what the team stands for, how it is going to work and what it wants to be remembered for before tackling the what, the why and the how of accomplishing the task.

Critical non-essentials Woodward identified a host of smaller items that on their own appear not be crucial to the team’s success, but in aggregate they add up. These included being in your seat ten minutes before a team meeting was scheduled to start, changing into new kits for the second-half (no matter the score, we start again), and specialist coaching where needed – this included getting RAF Tornado fighter pilot eye coaches into provide eye training for Jonny Wilkinson.

Talent & Teachability It’s the base you start from, but talent alone is not enough, it’s too unpredictable to create a winning team. Individuals have to become students, their willingness to learn and accumulate knowledge around their role will give them the awareness of what they need to do to continually. Talent without training is like an octopus on roller skates – there’s plenty of movement but you never know if this is going to be forwards, backwards or sideways.

Pressure Individuals have to have a warrior spirit, says Woodward, meaning they are able to perform well at the critical moment – hence the acronym T-CUP. It’s the job of the leader to constantly put their team under pressure. People aren’t born to perform under pressure, they need to get used to it because only the winners perform their best under pressure.

Practice Woodward created an environment where the team constantly went through hypothetical situations under time pressure to reach a decision. It’s about role-play, after role-play, after role-play, working through every eventuality so that the team has already gone through the thought processes needed to overcome them. This reduces the chances of coming up against something unexpected in the real world, allowing the team to use the little time they may have to think through the problem. Don’t win against the odds.

Will Winning cultures must have the commitment to win. It’s about the attitude they display. Woodward breaks this down into three parts: Obsession with the task: individuals focus on attention to detail and have an uncompromising level of excellence; Responsibility: a readiness to take tasks on as their job and make sure they are seen through; Enjoyment: team members have to ask themselves whether their colleagues enjoy working with them, and why.

Beyond number 1 For Woodward, this focused on what he did once the England team was ranked number one in the world, how did he behave, what culture did he instil in the team and how did they continue to improve ‘beyond number 1’?  So when your team achieves its goals, what do you do next?  How do you stay one step ahead of your competitors?  How do you maintain the state of mind that avoids complacency?  It’s all very easy to say but very difficult to do.

I think Woodward’s most insightful contribution was this back-to-front planning – he started with his vision of winning the World Cup at the Telstra Stadium Sydney, 22 November 2003. He asked the question: What is that World Cup winning team going to look like? and worked it backwards. He didn’t start with the squad he inherited and work forward, building slowly, gradually, pulling the pieces to culminate to a magnificent climax.

Quite the opposite, planning backwards, he knew what his team needed to look like in 2003 when he was appointed in 1997.  Stuart Lancaster has adopted this approach for England’s 2015 World Cup campaign, he’s identified his XV will have more than 500 caps – and that in turn requires the present team to be operating with 315 caps – the England team that beat Australia last weekend had 213.

Where do we want to be? Where are we now? How will we get there? is the building block approach towards identifying the winning requirements of your business. If you concentrate on winning just in the here and now, your mindset would take you to building a team for today, so it’s about having the courage to focus on both at the same time – the business team of today, and the business team of tomorrow, meaning you’re working in the business, as well as on the business. Backwards planning requires forward thinking.

Thinking backwards changes the focus from whether something might happen to how will it happen. Putting yourself into the future creates a different perspective. Thinking backwards helps to discover and evaluate different scenarios for how the future might unfold. Of course, you should never look backwards as you’ll fall down the stairs.

Woodward created a team culture of winning, where everyone was comfortable with the expectation of winning, and ensuring there was no hiding place – don’t look to the person on your left or right, do it yourself; don’t just turn up and put the shirt on, make a telling contribution. He make a winning ethic the team ethic. He identified those he wanted on his team – energisers, full of drive, fire, intensity, passion, spirit, and those he didn’t – energy sappers, who bleed, deplete, drain, erode, undermine the team.

A team is many voices, but a single heart. On that day in Sydney ten years ago, England had the biggest heart in the world, underpinned by vision, discipline, clarity and focus. Make your team a winning team by following this approach.

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