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Courage, Acting on Feedback and Flipping the Script



South Africans love to think of themselves as underdogs. Particularly Afrikaners, who tread an interesting path between arrogance and humility. An unwavering belief in our ability and resilience, with a simultaneous persistent feeling that we have our backs against the wall.  

  


This dichotomy has, over the years, been apparent in our sport, particularly our rugby. We play a winning game, leaning in on our strengths. And we are particularly dangerous when facing a lot of negativity and criticism – it galvanises us and will often lead to a favourable result against the odds. We are also generally regarded as a one-trick pony – if our plan A doesn’t work, we are unable to adjust to a plan B. In other words, we are good at a functional single strategy and execution – not so great at adjusting that strategy for tactical reasons.  

  

Historically, anyway. On 21 October 2023, we faced a double whammy of conditions for success. Or failure. Let me explain…  

  

Fresh off a riveting and entertaining last-minute victory against hosts and favourites France in the quarter-finals, South Africa squared off against England in the semi-finals. A side they had not lost to in a World Cup knock-out game in 20 years. A side that had been struggling, changed coaches, and had, frankly very little chance of winning against a Springbok side that was boasting momentum, superstars and incredible depth. The Springboks were the clear favourites, and this is never great for the South African psyche.  

  

Halfway through the game, it was clear that the Boks had to do more than show up to win. In fact, they were never in the game. The English, with a canny new coach, had worked out the Springboks tactics. Figured out their game plan, and devised ways to counter it. Playing a kicking game that targeted the smaller South African backs and nullified the protection protocols, South Africa was reeling to a 15-6 deficit and looked against the ropes. It was bad. The old enemy, led by Uber villain Owen Farrell, was punching our ticket.  

  

In Springbok teams of eras past, we would today be reflecting on an embarrassing defeat. On our inability to adjust, on the lack of “smarts” by our players and coaches. We would lament bad selections, biased refereeing and poor player management.   

  

But we’re not, hey. Instead, we are firmly still clutching the trophy from not just winning that game, but the next week’s final too. And we did it as much by our tremendous strategic preparation as we did by our tactical nuance and team culture on the day.  

  

I would like to point to three things that happened that day that swung things in our favour:  

  

Courageous leadership: The Coaching staff pulled starting flyhalf Manie Libbok after only 30 minutes, replacing him with the more experienced Handre Pollard. In the wet conditions, Libbok’s expansive game was not working, and the coaches knew that they needed an early change to Pollard’s superior kicking game. It didn’t work at first – the English kept dominating. But it was a step in the right direction, even if they knew that they would draw immense negative feedback for it. Talking about feedback…  


Importance of feedback: An image lingers of the coaching team in animated conversation at that point of the game. Instead of watching the game, they were workshopping why the English were so dominant. They put their heads together, figured out what was wrong… and then made decisive changes to the tactical approach of their team to counter what was happening on the field. There was real-time feedback, acted on decisively and quickly.  



Preparation beats Pressure: The Boks were well drilled. Well drilled, well prepared, and ready to go. With Plan A, and Plan B. They actually launched with Plan B, a Libbok-led attacking game that had proved so effective against France. When Plan B was not working, they went back to Plan A, and quickly. Along with Pollard, they knew they had the Bomb Squad, the fabled strong pack of reserves, to execute it.   

  

The English almost won the day, against incredible odds. But the Springboks combined courage with discipline and acted on immediate feedback to adjust their approach in real-time. It was sensational stuff.  

  

If you dip into Elon Musk’s biography, you will notice a theme. Whether Tesla or SpaceX or his other ventures, Musk would insist on courage from his team. He would take some crazy risks, set untenable deadlines, demand unrealistic efficiencies. Yet time and time again, he and his team would succeed. Why? Because he would get stuck in. Sleep on a mattress in the factory, interrogate every single process and requirement, and demand immediate feedback and iteration. He would have a mantra: “Remove as many processes as we can. If we’re not reversing 10% of decisions, we’re not iterating aggressively enough.”  

  

Whether it is sport or building the world’s most cutting-edge electric car, the power of feedback, iteration and courage under fire remains key elements to not just thriving in the good times, but pushing through when things get tough.  

  

Oh, one last thing. Musk is famous for temperamental people management. He would fire the most competent and loyal of engineers on a whim. But that approach, even if I don’t quite agree with it, does mean that everyone was always giving their 110%. Their seat was never secure. And that is kind of what Rassie and the coaching team achieved with the Springboks, too…  



  

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