It’s about more than just rugby

Tank Lanning

Last Sunday the Blitzboks beat Scotland 33-5 to win some makeshift pre-season tournament in Stellenbosch.

I know, Snorefest of note!

However, on the sideline that day were teammates Werner Kok and Ruhan Nel. On the face of it, also a smidgen yawn-inducing. But these two guys had been in Durban the day before, winning the Currie Cup for Western Province.

They quite literally got off the plane on Sunday morning and went straight through to Stellenbosch to watch their Blitzboks mates in a pre-season throw around!

“It points to the healthy culture in the squad, something that is pleasing to see,” said coach Neil Powell in his usual understated way. It’s way more than pleasing. It is a fundamental reason why the Blitzboks are world champs.

Sure they are an island of sorts, free of any provincial meddling given that the players are centrally contracted to SA Rugby. And they have a world-class coach, world-class facilities, world-class conditioning and a single goal that they are totally focused on.

In a nutshell, they chase excellence in an environment conducive to doing exactly that.

But one of the key things that Powell has got right, is team culture. He, his fellow coaches, and leadership team, have instilled not only squad and team structures that are simple to follow, but also a set of team values that everyone not only has to follow, but is proud to follow.

Former skipper Kyle Brown speaks often of the family type culture, and of the Blitzbok brotherhood that sees them always looking out for each other. There is no childish hierarchy that sees older or more capped players as more important than the new guys.

It’s an incredibly difficult thing to get right, especially given the different backgrounds our players come from. And yet so very key to success in any team sport, especially rugby.

The Lions got it right under Johan Ackermann – with Warren Whiteley playing a massive role – hence their Super Rugby success on the field. And I saw two other examples of team culture influencing results on the weekend.

That second half from WP in Durban didn’t catch a ride in on a flying pig. Coach John Dobson is a massive believer in team culture, and having had the privilege of coaching with him at Ikeys, I have seen how much he is willing to give of himself to build this culture.

Dobson believes in building better human beings because better humans are more likely to have greater rugby EQ and thus take joy from the success of others – so fundamental to the sum of the parts being greater than the individual parts merely clattering around. Yes, the sensational scrum performance helped, but it was a belief built out of team culture that powered as convincing a second half as WP could have hoped for.

Speaking of better human beings, I am not sure they come much better than False Bay skipper and lock, Graham Knoop, who not only took Man of the Match in their win against College Rovers in the Gold Cup final, but also the title of SA Club Player of the Year, having led the the Constantia-based club to a near-perfect season during which they lost just one match.

Old-school Knoop believes in getting the team into the pub not only after every game, but after every Thursday practice. Not to get totally broken (well, not every time), but to get to know your teammates outside the white lines. Who are you more likely to offload to as you get tackled one metre from the tryline, the oke you only know as your fellow lock, or the prop you know has a black pug called Coleman?

I saw a great quote on culture, with the source sadly not revealed: “Losers assemble in small groups and complain about the coaches and other players. Winners assemble as a team and find ways to win.”

How right! Gossip and complaining are proper culture-killers. Great coaches and teammates don’t allow it to happen in their team!

- Tank Lanning

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  • MDk

    Finally you’re writing what I want to read about… the mental side of rugby. It’s as important as the physical side, yet it’s far harder to pin down. Why is it you can see rugby players’ shoulders slump and a loss of intensity when the game is lost? Do you throw your hands in the air and give up when you go to work and you have a morning where everything seems to go wrong? No. You grind it out. You make the best of the situation. The problem is the ego. The solution is the team. I hate cliches, but there is no I in team. What you will find is that coaches are very loathed to actually talk about how they manage the different types of personalities and how they get them to sync. Understanding each player individually and getting people to believe in the team is the art. Of course that is determined by the personality of the coach, so there is no recipe to be followed. Only lessons to be learned. Words are funny things because they can either get player to rise to greater heights or fail to inspire. To be clear the coach is instrumental in deciding game strategy, the cliched “gameplan” and tactics…. and changing them when things aren’t working. It’s a battle of brains as much as it is a battle of brawn.

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