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The Springboks And Team Europe, Consistency And The Power of SMaC

It’s been another great week for sport. Or has it?

Consider my beloved Springboks. They always lose to Australia in Australia. They always beat Australia in South Africa. They always lose to New Zealand in New Zealand, and they sometimes even lose to them at home. It’s all pretty predictable, really. They tend to win a World Cup every 12 years, do relatively well in the next one then have a coach-firing blowout in the next tournament before they regroup to win again.

And in this particular round of matches in the Rugby World Cup, strong nations bullied weak nations. It’s not football, hey. There are 4-5 teams that dominate, and the rest are just cannon fodder. In a tournament with 20 teams, that’s not a great look. It’ll look better in a fortnight when we get to the business end and the quarterfinals, but in the meantime, it’s middling entertainment at best.

In two weeks, the drama will be a dominant Ireland taking on a struggling New Zealand. And home favourite France taking on the hopeful Springboks. The spice will be in the hope of upsets, but the smart money is that the two form teams, playing in front of crowds that will give them a massive boost, will eliminate the Southern Hemisphere titans.

But we’ll tune in anyway. It’ll be great entertainment. And it’s because all four teams REALLY HAVE THEIR SHIT TOGETHER. Well, maybe not New Zealand. But, like the US in golf, they have so much damn talent that you can never write them off. Talking about golf…

The Ryder Cup is played every two years in either the US or Europe. When it’s played in Europe, Europe usually wins. When in the US, the US usually wins. The difference is that one in three times historically, the Europeans also win away. This variable has added significant spice to the contest and has been par for the course since the 80s. Here’s why.

The Europeans had a playbook. A template, they call it. Developed by Tony Jacklin in the 80s, it governs the way they do things.

Here are some highlights:

  • Home Ground Advantage is critical. Set up the course to favour your players, not theirs. And rev up the crowd for additional intimidation.

  • Your first two-day pairings are critical. Match players on form and chemistry, and communicate these pairings to them way in advance so they can get used to each other.

  • Understand that in the final day singles, the Americans have more firepower and are likely to win the last day. Manage your players so they are still fresh on the last day, and stack you playing order according to what you think their captain will do to even the odds.

By 1991, and the famous War on the Shore, the Americans had caught up on the idea of home-ground advantage. But, perplexingly, they would take another two decades to get the other two things right. They would just shrug their shoulders and go: “We have the talent. If we show up, and our guys play well on the day, we can win.” And in the meantime, the Europeans often won in the US and won all of their home games.

This attitude feels a lot like South African rugby over the last few decades. We’re bigger and more physical, so let’s just do that. Every once in a while it will pay off.

Hope is not a strategy.

It can be argued that taking advantage of home ground is the most critical aspect of this whole story. But the second aspect, and one that the US has woken up to, is consistency.

You see, a new captain gets picked every two years. And he is usually a stalwart of the game, and it’s a huge honour. The captain has a massive impact – if he doesn’t communicate well, if he changes his mind too much, if he doesn’t listen to his players and backs them and navigates his plan in context of what’s happening on the field… well, they are likely to lose. Happened to Tom Watson in 2014. Happened to Faldo in 2008.

Azinger’s playbook in 2008 should have become foundational for the US. But following captains chose to ignore it, and lost. Only after a very public meltdown and senior respected players and coaches throwing each other under the bus in 2014, change happened. The powers that be finally listened, players were involved in decision-making, and some consistency was introduced to the way they approach these things.

And you know what? The US has given as good as they got ever since.

What’s my point? Consistency right? But how? Leadership guru Jim Collins calls it SMaC.

Here’s the definition:

SMaC Recipe is a concept developed in the book Great by Choice. An SMaC recipe is a set of durable operating practices that creates a replicable, consistent success formula. The word "SMaC" stands for Specific, Methodical, and Consistent. A solid SMaC recipe is the operating code for turning strategic concepts into reality, a set of practices more enduring than mere tactics.

Europe has had SMaC for three decades, and the results show it. The All Blacks from New Zealand have done the same, and more recently the Irish. In South Africa, we’ve come a long way towards it, and the results have also started to come our way. A playbook for consistency, so no matter who is in charge, they can build on those that came before and gain momentum. You still won’t win all the time, because your competition is rock stars too. But you’ll at least give as good as you get.

Bring on the quarterfinals!

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