We won, we won, we won. On a brandy-and-Coke fueled stress-inducing heart-rate-elevating Saturday night, we defeated our old foe, New Zealand, to win rugby’s biggest crown. Take a bow, South Africa. I, for one, am glad it’s all over, and my frazzled nerves and defeated liver can both take a break.
Worth reflecting on a few things tonight through the lens of L.E.K.K.E.R. leadership, at the end of a big week.
A consistent message from the players was how the coaching team talked to them. Really saw them, took an interest in them, and involved them. The players felt seen and heard, and it made all the difference. But there was a second element to how the leadership listened – they listened to how others came to success, and they copied what worked.
The All Blacks beat us way more than we beat them. In fact, they almost did it again this weekend. But we won out, as we more often do these days. Going back about 7 years, in the halcyon days of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, they were like gods. Untouchable. There were management books and articles and literature on the incredible culture of the All Blacks, and how that breeds success. I mean, I get it. They will always, on balance, be the world’s best team with the sexiest intro move. But not this weekend, my friends.
You see, these days, we have the aura. We have the charismatic leader (Siya Kolisi), we have the cultural impact that is lauded by the world, and we have a way to win when all seems lost. And it is because we paid attention. We copied what could work for us, and we found ways to still build on where we were strong. Which brings me to my next point.
A lot has been said about the meticulous analysis and planning that is the backbone of this outfit. Stats, data, and player management have been at the core of its success. Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are lauded for not only all the things that they did but also for the things that they didn’t do.
We are now celebrated as a team that might not have the greatest talent, but we are the most prepared. We always come with a plan, an innovation, a way to defeat the odds. It worked again this weekend. In years past, the dominant athleticism and fitness of the All Black team would see them either start strong or finish with a bang. So, they would usually win, and if they got both right, they would absolutely clobber you.
But this weekend, we held them at bay. Why? Let’s dig into how.
A theme emerged since the last World Cup of the Springboks being more than just a rugby team. The message that the team is about hope, about lifting a nation’s spirits, was carried through to this edition of the contest, four years later. South Africa not only play well. They spin well.
The Siya story of rags to riches is the key. It is a higher purpose narrative, the fact that this team is playing, more than any other team, for the people, for the struggle, for the right to dignity and joy and parity. It’s good stuff (it also happens to be 100% true), and every single person in the team stayed on message throughout. Players get dropped and they don’t complain. Higher purpose. Press conferences get tricky. Stay on message – higher purpose. Controversy hits the team. Ignore it and talk about higher purpose. What does this do? It means we get to wear the cloak of virtue previously assumed by Richie and Co. And what else does this do? Referees are just human. The untouchability of McCaw that drove us nuts a decade ago now seems to adhere to our captain, and the All Blacks, these days, get punished as much as anyone for indiscretions. No longer are we the punching boys of referees the world over. And these subtle differences in respect were once again apparent this weekend. For three weeks, opposition teams bleated nonstop about unfair treatment from officials. And we just kept on trucking. Unbelievable.
We kept the elements that worked for us and leaned in. But we also made hard decisions when needed.
Manie Libbok gets dropped for the final. Canan Moodie, for all his undeniable talent, isn’t selected for the last few games. The Springboks abandon the quest for a more expansive game in favour of the brutal simple approach that has yielded results in the past.
So many examples of the team making strong and bold decisions for success. No weakness here. Decisive action and firm direction, and the collective agreement to discard what is not working and go with what is, even if feelings might get hurt. To their credit, individuals like Manie Libbok got past their ego and played their part regardless of where they sat in the pecking order. We… I…. could learn a lot from that.
As a side note, our kicking on the night (thanks Handre) was the difference. We took all our chances, but they didn’t. It’s as simple as that.
And leaning into your strengths? Well, that was just spectacular.
Hindsight is an exact science. The All Blacks’ record-equaling winger, Will Jordan, never really saw the ball. And the classic last-20-minutes-All-Black-comeback didn’t happen. Why? Because through the risky use of 7 forwards on the bench, we mitigated that risk. We didn’t have the ascendancy, and a lot went wrong for us. But it was the bold call that made all the difference in the end.
For the final, we once again elevated the importance of a strong forwards bench. And when Bongi was off within a couple of minutes, that emphasis on the forwards paid off. Hats off to 37-year-old Deon Fourie, who played out of position for a full 77 minutes and nailed it. Sure, the lineouts were a problem from that point on – but his play in other areas more than made up for it.
Oh, and bringing back Handre Pollard. The flyhalf is now a dyed-in-the-wool legend, and his elevation back into the starting line-up from such a long injury layoff will become a story told with great gusto around braais for many years to come.
Jesse Kriel, in a post-match interview, spoke of the honour of being in the final for the first time. Along with Damian de Allende, they were stalwarts of the team. They played well, but many thought the alternative pairing of André Esterhuizen and Canan Moodie brought something extra.
But the coaching team rewarded their consistency, output, and commitment with a place in the final. The transparency culture, the emphasis on a higher purpose, and the communication with the players were what was critical in this effort.
Everyone here will be rewarded. In immediate monetary gains, in highly paid appearance fees, in sponsorships, in high-paying contracts and opportunities. But it’s not about that for most of them.
It’s about the reward of being part of something greater than themselves, and truly making a difference.