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Milestones, Sacrificing Pawns and Staying the Course

I remember starting my first big corporate role at Tourvest. The team was excited about this fresh face (I was pretty young), and one chap excitedly said: “I’m excited for your leadership, and to hear your vision!” 


Leadership? Vision? What the hell did I know… 


I now know what he was wanting, and what I didn’t have. A clear idea of what success would look like, and breaking down that winning condition into the smaller steps necessary to get there. Vision is that simple – and the bolder you make it, the better.  


So that sounds easy enough. But the next, and trickier, part is to execute that vision. To provide the conditions for your team to win, and to manage your resources effectively. Again, reflecting on those early days, I made lots of mistakes. I didn’t manage my top players effectively (many of them resigned), I didn’t fight my corner when the pressure became too intense from other stakeholders, and I for sure said yes to too many opportunities, where a firm no would have helped me focus on what I needed to get done. 


We’re going into the post-World Cup Springbok test season, and it’s going to be interesting. Rassie needs to once again balance the scales of developing new talent and winning games. It’s a tightrope he has successfully walked for six years now, and it’s because he stood firm when pressures mounted, I think.  


He is different from coaches before him, in that he understands the big picture. He also understands the sacrifices that are required to reach the bigger goals. To use a chess analogy, he gets that in order to take the queen, you have to sacrifice some pawns.  


He rolled out a roadmap of success to his team, and it included particular markers that needed to be achieved in terms of results: 


  1. Primary Goal 2018: Beat the All Blacks in New Zealand 

  1. Confidence Building Goal 2018: Win the English incoming tour (2 out of 3 games) 


  1. Primary Goal 2019: Win the Rugby World Cup 

  1. Confidence Building Goal 2019: Win the Rugby Championship 


In order to hit these important markers for particular games and tournaments, other games might need to be de-prioritised. And that could mean losing them. And that would be fine. 


Case in point: The first game against Wales in 2018 (they narrowly lost). The third test against the English (the series already won). Twice in that first 18 months, the team would play a weaker side for lesser games, risking defeat, but knowing that the brutal travel schedule did not allow for back-to-back wins. If they wanted to win the important away game, they needed superior planning and player management.  


The other part of this was the mental game. In 2017, towards the end of Alister Coetzee’s disastrous tenure as coach, the Boks lost back-to-back games against the All Blacks, extending their losing streak against their greatest rivals to 7 games in a row. Giving it greater context, the single win in 2014 interrupted another run of 5 victories. So, one win in thirteen games… and one had to go back to 2009 to find evidence of an away victory. 


The Springboks were among the top teams in the world, but not THE top team. That title belonged to the All Blacks. And the All Blacks were ending a purple patch, during which they had won back-to-back World Cups, boasted an 87% winning record, and were completely unassailable on their home turf for a decade. 


For the Springboks to bounce back to the top of the food chain, and for the players to really believe they could win the top prize in rugby, they needed to beat the best first. And away from home, stripping away any home-ground advantage that could detract from the performance.  


The objective was clear. Win the biggest prize in rugby. But there were steps to doing so. The first major obstacle to clear was to beat the All Blacks away. And to gain the confidence to do THAT, the Springboks absolutely needed to win the home series against the English. 


By the narrowest of margins, the Boks came good that day in Wellington and narrowly won the game against the All Blacks. Even a narrow home defeat where the All Blacks exacted revenge couldn’t detract from that moment, and it would set them on the path to victory a year later. 


In 2019, in a shortened version of the Rugby Championship, Rassie rolled the dice. The “B-team" stayed at home to take on the Wallabies, while the “A-team" travelled to New Zealand a week earlier to acclimatise and thoroughly prepare for the game. The strategy came good. The “B-team" won and some new talent, most notably Herschel Jantjies, was unearthed. And a week later, in New Zealand, the “A-team" stole a draw against the Kiwis, which set up a Rugby Championship cup victory against Argentina a week later. The team had hit all their markers and were now set for the World Cup in Japan.  


There was one last order of business. Rassie’s meticulous preparation dictated that there was a strong chance they could meet Japan in the quarterfinals of the competition. If this happened, the pressure would be immense. The Japanese, former minnows of World Rugby, had famously beat South Africa in the 2015 edition of the World Cup. With home-ground advantage and a psychological edge, they would be dangerous to take on on the big stage. Stage fright and favourites tag could trip up the Springboks – so the coach rolled the dice and elected to play a friendly warm-up against the Japanese right before the global showpiece. 

The Springboks would win in convincing fashion, get the monkey off their back, and go on to claim the biggest prize.  

This year will be the first test of Rassie’s leadership in a post-World Cup year (Covid robbed the Springboks of game time in 2020). It’s going to be interesting to watch. The leadership strength of the coach has always been the way he can balance unwavering belief with inclusive listening. Stay the course but listen to your trusted leaders. It’s a fine skill, and he will be tested on his ability to stick to his plan once again.  


Game on. 

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