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Thoughts from the early stages of #RWC2015

September 28, 2015

The competition for the 2015 William Webb Ellis trophy is now well underway, although England’s weekend defeat by Wales certainly put a damper on things in our house. But unlike the football world cup, there aren’t many flags outside houses, pubs or on cars. I guess rugby union doesn’t have the mass appeal of football.

Of course, rugby doesn’t really mean much to most of the population, and utter cluelessness will abound over the complexity of rules in what most see as men running around looking to knock each other over and engage in a bun fight, wrestling for an egg-shaped ball. Let’s face it, if you weren’t brought up on rugby union, you just don’t get it.

Most first time observers will notice that everything in rugby union is oblong. The field is oblong, the players are oblong, and consequently, the shirts are oblong. The shirts are the sort of thing that once no longer able to absorb the mud, water and yanking on the field, you can wear to wash the car in, or indeed, with.

So, let me explain some of the history, rules, formations and etiquette of the game.

What they play in the rugby world cup is rugby union, a 15-a-side game containing amorphous huddles of large, oblong men who step on each other. Rugby league, on the other hand, is a 13-a-side game, in which large, square men run full pelt into each other. These differences are vital.

Rugby union is the game they play in heaven, and yet the most painstaking study of either Old or New Testament is unlikely to reward the reader with any reference to Jesus, St Peter or the Archangel Gabriel scrummaging on the 22m line.

The game split following a meeting in The George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, driven by the authorities seeking to enforce the amateur principle of the sport, preventing ‘broken time payments’ to players who had taken time off work to play rugby.

Northern teams typically had more working class players (coal miners, mill workers etc.) who could not afford to play without this compensation, in contrast to affluent southern teams who had other sources of income to sustain the amateur principle (check out Downton Abbey). As a consequence, rugby league is stronger than union in the North of England.

A rugby team consists of Forwards and Backs.

Among the Forwards – the hearty muscle men – are such positions as the Props (2), a Hooker, the Second Rowers (2), Flankers (2) and the Number Eight. These are the real blokes who do all the work, have punch-ups and bully the backs (see below) in training, the dressing room and when out socialising. The Forwards stick together as a ‘pack’, and you’ll hear them running like the sound of a stampede of deranged wildebeest.

Lurking behind the Forwards are the Backs, who include: Scrum-Half, Fly-Half, Inside and Outside Centres, two Wingers, and a Full-Back. No scientific research has ever revealed what they do other than run with the ball, fall over with operatic drama when get tackled and give yet more work to the Forwards. The Backs dive around a lot trying to look good.

Backs are clearly distinguishable from the Forwards by their obvious over- use of men’s beauty products and visits to the dental hygienist, fear of getting dirty – they leave the field with shirts unblemished whilst the forwards are typically ripped to smithereens and covered in mud, blood and sweat – and drinking fresh coconut water in the bar, whilst the Forwards get stuck into the beer. And then get stuck into the Backs.

You want your daughter to marry a Forward, not a Back.

The game goes for two halves of 40 minutes apiece, plus injury time. This is about the only rugby rule you’ve got a chance of understanding if you didn’t play the game at school.

The team in possession of the ball (egg-shaped, 15cm x 30cm) is seeking to score a ‘Try’, by putting the ball down across the opposition try-line (there’s the clue.) So a bloke runs with the ball until tackled, and then everyone sort of gets giddy, jumping in together into a shapeless mass, highlighted by a spirited form of folk-dancing in which they attempt to sink their boot-studs into the nearest deposit of opposition soft tissue.

By the way, this is for the Forwards, the Backs stay well back for fear of getting a chipped fingernail in the melee.

Every so often, the referee blows his whistle, apparently out of pity, contrariness, or boredom. This will usually result in either:

 A scrum: a vital attacking and psychological tool. The scrum takes place after certain infringements. The Forwards pack down as a unit, link arms and immediately group-head-butt their opposite numbers while frantically kicking at their ankles and trying to out-grunt their counterparts and win the ball to teammates behind them, using their feet only.

How dominant the Backs are in a match, and how much space and time they have to work with, is determined by the dominance of the Forwards and the scrum.

A ruck is the phase of play when one or more players from each team are bound over the ball, which is on the ground between them. The aim of the ruck is for the players to roll the ball with their feet to their teammates behind them.

A maul is similar to the ruck, except the ball is not on the floor but is the hands of one of the players.

The line-out takes place after the ball has left the field of play. Here players from both teams form lines, a player throws the ball between them and they jump up to catch it, and then feed the ball to the scrum-half. It is a combination of a ruck and ballet, in that players are allowed to propel their teammate by grabbing a fistful of crotch and/or buttock and launching him skywards at the incoming ball.

Line-outs and scrums sometimes resemble mayhem, in that the players often don’t get it quite right, prompting the referee to get flustered and angry and eventually award a kick to one team out of exasperation.

Every time the ref interrupts the general pandemonium by blowing his whistle, he shouts out in a booming Brian Blessed-type voice what decision he has made, and despite the testosterone physicality of rugby, you’ll see 100% respect for the referee and his decisions – no petulance, answering back or heckling like you do from footballers.

Talking of football, rugby is a game played by men who spend 80 minutes trying not to look injured and play the game honestly; football is a game played by men who spend 90 minutes trying to look injured and not play the game honestly. Just my opinion!

Scoring – a try is worth five points. A conversion, which comes after a try is scored, two points. Three points for a penalty, which results from a successful drop-kick going over the cross bar. So nine times out of 10, the team with the most tries wins.

So, that’s a quick guide to the game, and now 10 days into the competition, who will be champions?

In reality, there should only be one winner, and that is holders New Zealand, who, quite staggeringly since they won the trophy on home soil four years ago, have won 38 of 42 matches, drawing two (both against Australia) and losing only to England (2012) and South Africa (2014).

They are ranked number one and were you to name a world XV you would be obliged to pick nearly half the All Blacks team – Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick – you quickly realise that you cannot leave too many of them out.

But rugby is a team effort, not just individuals, so what lessons can we take from the world cup about building successful business teams?

Mental resilience is vital to winning the game It’s not often in business that you get as immediate feedback as you do in a game of rugby, the scoreboard tells it as it is in the moment, there’s a really clear distinction between success and failure. Of course the game isn’t won or lost until 80 minutes are on the clock, so you have to be mentally tough when losing or avoid complacency when winning to keep going. This applies to business, you have to keep an eye on performance and result, but play to the final whistle, don’t take your foot off the gas or give up, keep going.

Never underestimate an underdog After Japan’s stunning victory over South Africa it is clear that the underdog advantage should not be underestimated. Business giants may have financial dominance, marketplace clout or a brand reputation, but they can also fall into the trap of complacency and become stagnant.

Big businesses often don’t take notice of their smaller competitors, which enables the David v Goliath strategy of the underdog to not play by the same rules. Japan recognised they could not compete with the physicality of the Sprinboks, they are smaller and lighter, and thus played a dynamic game relying on their fast runners and pace.

Change the focus from who lost to who won and why All the focus has been on why South Africa lost to Japan, and why England fell to Wales. Very little has been said about the Japanese and how they won, or the guile, courage and agility shown by the Welsh. We often focus on losses and highlight what went wrong and not what to do rather than what made a difference to enable the winners to win.

Set explicit standards
Sir Clive Woodward called these critical non-essentials, and Stuart Lancaster has continued with setting a culture of high expectations. He banned headphones and mobile phones from team meetings, only allowing them in players’ own rooms, and run on ‘Lombardi time’ – inspired by Vince Lombardi, famed coach of the Green Bay Packers – whereby everyone arrives at a meeting 10 minutes early.

The players set their watches 10 minutes fast so they are never late.

In business I see meetings regularly starting late, people answering phones during conversations, laptops up when other people are presenting.

Always learning, always growing Very much like Dave Brailsford’s principles of ‘marginal gains’ which has delivered outstanding success for both the British Olympic Cycling and the Sky cycling team, Stuart Lancaster’s focus is all about learning and finding incremental ways to do better. The focus is on continual improvement and creating a strong learning environment. Every business needs to be a learning organisation if it is to grow.

When you get knocked down, get back up straight away In Rugby, players prepare for a big hit – set backs are therefore planned for and overcome. The same attitude should be taken in business. Just because you are defeated in one phase of play does not mean that failure should be assumed overall.

The most successful individuals in business are those able to recognise their shortfalls in a defeat and use them as a learning to lead to future success. It’s crucial in business to bounce back and avoid that pitfall the next time.

So, come 8pm, 31 October, just pause for a moment and as England get ready to face the All Blacks in the final, reflect on the England XV, an outstanding team of individuals – not a team of outstanding individuals. Everyone will play their part. As Shakespeare said ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’. Come on England!

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