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Old Dogs, New Tricks and the Obsession with Youth

Updated: May 23

I did a chemistry check with a prospective client the other day. It was an interesting discussion, and one topic stuck with me: The world has changed a lot, and companies and people now need new ideas and tactics to scale and grow. Agreed… and all the tech/AI/crypto/social media/connectivity/Gen Z/globalisation/fast fashion/green energy/pronouns stuff needs to be onboarded by leaders.  


At the same time, some principles are timeless. You need youth, and new ideas, and the innocent confidence of not knowing so that you accidentally break things. It’s also useful to have some experience nearby, folks that aren’t as “with it” but understand the fundamentals, have done their time in breaking things and know how to keep a steady hand on the tiller.   


Years ago, in my spell in the corporate sector, I worked for a company that was obsessed with youth. Can’t complain – it meant I was given a lot of executive responsibility at a young age (and, looking back, I wasn’t ready). The people mentoring and guiding me were also young, and I think we could all have benefited from a few greyer beards in the house. Some years after I left (in fact, after most of us left) new blood came in, and a few hung on. Today, 20 years later, those stayers are the old dogs. The company is better for it, I think.  


To drive home my point, let’s have a look at an excerpt from my new book “The Bomb Squad OS” and how winning coaches use old dogs to steady the ship:  

World Cup-winning Springbok coaches have something in common. They bring in a seasoned pro for an extra bit of leadership, an extra bit of energy. Usually someone in the twilight of their playing years, a player who didn’t quite enjoy the stellar career at the top he should have had. Someone with undeniable credibility with the other players, but not a threat to the established leadership.  


In 2007, Jake White brought back former Western Province player Bobby Skinstad to lead the “second stringers”. Making sure the rest of the squad remained motivated and aligned fell on the erstwhile wonderboy. Skinstad, by all accounts, was an established and accomplished captain and player, and this was his swansong. There is an asterisk next to his name, though. He exploded onto the scene in the late 90s, and his outsize talent, personality and youthful exuberance made him a pinup model, future captain and team disruptor. He was simply too good, too naïve, too… well, everything. And his presence ruffled many senior players’ feathers (among them Erasmus, an established player at the time). His trajectory was clipped by a fateful car accident that cost him his fitness and speed at a critical time. He would go on to recover (but never be the player that he was). He would briefly captain the Springboks, and eventually, in 2007, form part of the larger squad that won the cup. More mature, still playful and fun, he was the perfect alternate to the stoic John Smit, who would lead the “A-team” to the Webb Ellis trophy.  


In 2019, Schalk Brits got the nod. There are many parallels with Skinstad. He also had played for the Boks and Western Province, but his decision to go abroad and play in England would mean he was mostly not eligible for selection during his career. As captain and key player in a successful British side, Brits would enjoy a long and lucrative career, but would only be brought into Bok selection occasionally, due to shifting rules regarding international player eligibility. Many were surprised when, after he had officially retired and moved back to South Africa, Rassie Erasmus asked him to come back and be part of the 2019 team. It was an inspired move. Brits, like Skinstad before him, was a popular leader and someone who injected energy and enthusiasm into the environment. He, like Skinstad, would play no part in the final knockout games, their focus and role to lead the “support” players in the pool games.   


And on to 2023, where it was the turn of Deon Fourie. Fourie would make history in 2022 when he would become the oldest player ever to be selected for the national team. By the time the tournament rolled around, Fourie would be 37 years of age. An old warhorse in every sense of the word, Fourie shared the DNA of Brits and Skinstad. Played for Province/Stormers? Check. Spent time playing abroad? Check. Established captain at club/provincial level? Check. And though Brits were older at the time of the 2019 final victory (by a year), Fourie would have the unlikely distinction of playing almost the entire final, out of position, nursing an injury. He even, in an unbelievable twist of fate, found himself captaining the team for ten minutes while Siya Kolisi was in the sin bin.  


The difference between Skinstad and Brits on the one hand, and Fourie on the other, is that the former two made the leap to the national team early in their careers, and were often in and out of the squad leading up to their involvement in World Cup winning campaigns. Fourie, errr… not so much. He waited over 16 years for his shot. And boy did he take it. Where the natural energy of Skinstad and Brits makes them obvious leaders and fan favourites, Fourie did it the hard way. A hooker that transitioned to a loose forward, he was never quite good enough to take the leap up to the big leagues. However, it is well documented that Rassie looked for players with a bit of “dog” in them. And Fourie, the journeyman, the unyielding slogger, had just that quality that Erasmus was looking for.   


History will reflect that it was a disastrous campaign, from a planning point of view. The “Bomb Squad” concept relied heavily on two packs of equal strength and talent. Malcolm Marx, the world’s best hooker, suffered an early injury, removing him from the mix. Fourie, as a third-choice hooker (but not having played there for years) was thrust into the spotlight. The coaches could have elected to call up a specialist, but except for Joseph Dweba (who had been found wanting at the highest level) there were no options. The leadership team made the decision to recall Handre Pollard instead, who had returned from injury. More on Pollard later. Fourie heeded the call to go to the front of the line.   


In a second successive World Cup final, first-choice hooker Bongi Ndombani suffered an early and match-ending injury. Like four years before, the reserve hooker had to step up to the plate. But the differences between Marx and Fourie are legion. Marx is a game-changing superstar, considered by many to be the best in the world. Fourie… well, Fourie, right? He isn’t even really a hooker.   


But for 73 minutes, despite his shortcomings in the lineout and obvious fatigue in the scrums towards the end of the game, he would throw body and soul into the cause, and be a major part of a team that stayed the course to be crowned champions once again.  


Old dog, old warhorse, indeed.   

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