England 19: Ospreylia 26

February 3, 2008

The sport headlines declared that a club team representing Wales had won a famous Rugby Union victory against an England team that had been world champions, and more recently runners-up, in the last two world championships. What happened? How did it come about? And are there any lessons to be learned about leadership, team spirit, and that mysterious sporting phenomenon of momentum?

Saturday February 2nd 2008.

The Six Nations Rugby tournament kicked off with England home against Wales. Even in Wales, the faithful prepared themselves for the worse. The days when Wales had been a major international force at Rugby were retreating into mythology. In the intervening period (to make things worse) England rugby had advanced until even the most grudging Welsh supporter acknowledged a gulf in quality and strength in depth. Wales had not won at Twickenham for two decades.

A few months ago, Wales and England both began the Rugby World Cup. Wales were eliminated in the first stage. And England improved and improved. Wales retreated to lick their wounds, and to ditch the hapless coaching team. They also had in mind appointing much-rated coach Warren Gatland from New Zealand.

So hasty were they to make a fresh start, that the Welsh Rugby Union accepted that their preferred candidate would be unable to start work with the team until the 2008 competitive season was nearly underway.

Gatland wanted to bring with him an English defensive coach. Unheard of. But his pick was Shaun Edwards another top class coach who had shared success with Gatland in the past. Ironically, Edwards would have liked a post within the England set-up, but had not been able to agree terms.

Making the best of a bad job

So the likely lads arrived in town too late to make a difference to a dispirited Welsh squad. Then, an ingenious and daring selection decision. Gatland had no time to weigh up strengths and weaknesses of every player in every club throughout the land. But one Welsh premier team, the Ospreys, had been performing well (albeit hardly spectacularly) at international and regional levels.

The Welsh squad was announced, and the astonishing news was that there would be 13 of the starting 15 players from that one club team. The shock can be seen against the fact that the previous record was for 10 players (from the once dominant Cardiff club, some sixty years earlier). England, with more clubs to draw from, had managed seven players on a few occasions.

‘Don’t expect miracles’

Whatever Gatland told the players, he went out of his way to warn the Welsh Nation not to expect miracles. Good move, although unsurprising.

What happened next?

By general agreement, the game began as everyone expected. The mighty English outscored and overpowered the less muscular Welsh team. At half-time, Wales were clearly hanging on, close to collapse into humiliation. The 16-6 score concealed several opportunities lost by England to add to their score.

Then a miracle?

Maybe. What was observed was a rather sudden shift from England ‘almost’ administering a knock-out, to a team showing signs of poor tactical decisions, poor execution, and an evident drop in energy. Major figures had been injured in the frenzied first half, but the replacements seemed more than adequate to continue the demolition.

Wales cut out the elementary errors that had compounded their problems in the first half.

England continued to rely on power, when they were running on empty. And ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got’. But power had stopped working. And there didn’t seem to be a plan B.

Wales scrabbled back some of the lead to 19-12. A nice move by Hook from half-back created a try to draw the score. More flustered play, by (of all people Jonny Wilkinson) and a second try in short order.

It’s all over

Commentators were now saying that England had lost all momentum. That mysterious force. They were doomed. I was not particularly convinced. But so it came about. The out-muscled Welsh forwards proceeded to out-muscle the former bullies.

Miracles and momentum

Let’s get the sporting clichés out of the way first. The Welsh/Ospreys team went in at half-time like little boys lost, and came out roaring and spitting. What a great team-talk that must have been by Gatland and Edwards. Except, we don’t know. When interviewed, the Welsh players either couldn’t remember, or were not saying. It’s a team effort, they repeated, as if brainwashed. It’s all the players and all the coaching squad together.

But the players on the field ‘just knew’ that England were wilting, just like the commentators knew.

And the adoring Welsh fans are well on the way to hailing an unusual pair of incomers as Great Redeemers to guide them with a powerful hand.

It left England’s coach Brian Ashton bemused. We need some time to reflect on it, he said.

And so do I.

Post Mortem

After the match Gatland gave a revealing interview to the BBC. He again attempted to lower expectations, and talked of the decision to select so many players from one club.

“I know from experience with club sides it is going to take 12 months, two years to turn this side into a good side… Saturday was a starting point but to be a good side we have got a hell of a lot of improving to do ..so don’t expect miracles in a few weeks.

I am not saying that is going to be the case for next week, but I could have easily have taken a bit of pressure off myself by picking two or three others [non Ospreys]. But I believed that was the right decision for that game……The hard decision was picking as many as we did, and having the composure to do it knowing that people would comment on it.”


Leadership dreams, visions, and nightmares

October 23, 2007

mbeki-after-world-cup.jpgThe payoff from a vision dashed is a recurring nightmare. We examine recent sporting visions, dreams and nightmares during the Rugby Union world-cup

A glimpse of dashed dreams was transmitted around the world as the beaten English rugby team trudged up to receive their runners-up medals after defeat by South Africa. As if in a nightmare, the players trudged past the line of dignitaries, which included Presidents Sarcozy of France, the host nation, Brown of England (and Scotland and Wales), and Mbiki of South Africa. Weariness seemed to have damped-down despair and elation alike. The players just about managed perfunctory handshakes.

A few minutes later and joy overcame fatigue for the South Africans as they eventually got their hands on the trophy. The defining image was that of President Mbiki hald aloft not quite as securely as man of the match Victor Mayfield in the lineouts which he dominated throughout the game. Sorry, must make that clear: It was Mayfield who dominated the lineouts, Mbiki the political gestures, during the post-match celebrations.

The vision

The build-up to the final from had been a classical example of the way sport can tap into the deepest of group emotions. A popular upsurge in interest was captured and amplified through the obsessive reporting from Paris, where there seemed to be more former international players than members of the current squad.

The broad news story was that England would be a match for the Springboks. Most of the legion of elders suggested that England could win, if they played to their very best. Most reporters translated this as meaning that the match would be very close. Close? The South Africans had beaten England seriously in the earlier stages of the tournament.

The talisman

Yes, but that was before the team began its revival. Before its talisman Jonny Wilkinson returned to fitness. Before those nail-biting victories against Australia and then France.

The pre-match story began to make sense to me. There was something very important going in England culturally. This was one of those episodes which reveal how culture defines itself, and is itself defined. A vision is articulated.

We are the champions of the world in Rugby Union. We will remain champions for the next four years by beating South Africa.

How will it be achieved? Because we have the talisman. He who will not let us down. Jonny Wilkinson. He whose very presence will strike fear into our enemies. And so on.

Specifically there was a genuinely mimetic story to be heard. [Mimetics: The controversial of cultural transmission through ‘conceptual genes’ or memes.] It is consistent with a memetic approach that the story becomes become more consistent in its re-telling.

The replication process was helped by the intense appetite for ‘news’ from any-one. Celebrity Rugby has-beens were in demand. But so was the voice of the true supporter, the camp follower from the front-line. These were the voices from people close to the action. The real heroes were in silent preparation for the mighty battle ahead.

Someone articulated the achievement of the dream in a special way. It became the orthodoxy. It went something like this.

South Africa beat us, but that was when Jonny was injured.

They know Johnny is our match-winner and fear him.

Their fear will weaken their play and their resolve.

If we are only five or six behind with twenty minutes to go, their fear will play into our hands.

Although they will try to prevent it, the result is inevitable. Our mighty forwards will control the ball, battle forward, the ball will come out to Jonny.

Jonny will kick a drop goal.

That will confirm to the opponents that their fate is sealed.

And then we will score again and win.

The story has the power of all primitive atavistic expressions of fear and motivation. It is the verbal equivalent of the Hakas performed earlier in this and every tournament for over a hundred years by the New Zealand all-blacks. I have tried to report it accurately. Note how Wilkinson, undoubtedly the focal image within the story, changes the course of the game. But he doesn’t win it.

That’s one way in which the story has its power. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it has its powerful echoes. If the story just had the team winning by Jonny dropping a goal at the last minute, the story would lose power. ‘That’s just remembering what happened last time?’ someone might object, in the spirit of the lad shouting that the Emperor has no clothes. That was then. Here’s the new story of our destiny.

One moving, one clapping?

In the vision, fate decried only one outcome. But as someone pointed out, you may not be playing a game with one side moving and the other side clapping. Indeed, we might see all such battles as a contest between two stories, each of which has won over other stories in the run-up to battle. Eventually one vision triumphs, the other loses.

But the cultural loss is softened. There is always a way to find consolation. Victory denied, is also denial of defeat. We must have been robbed.

We was robbed

Yes. In those bitter and dark hours for English fans, there was the coda of being unfairly beaten. (How else?). In this case, it was the case of the disallowed try which would have brought the score into Jonney Wilkinson territory. The effort was disallowed by a fourth official. An Australian. Need I say more?

The other vision

There was another story developing. The South African dream went beyond winning a little golden cup. The symbolism was there for all to see. The nation had also had its earlier dream come true, as Nelson Mandela celebrated their earlier win. Then the President wore the gold and green shirt, which was previously a symbol associated with the earlier apartheid regime. This time the President wore a suit. But it was very convenient that the charismatic Mandela was ‘too ill to travel’.

The story, as was the one that England had dreamed of, was rooted in the past, but was also about the future. In South Africa, there is still a long road to travel, as Mandela would put it, to achieve the goals of one nation at peace with itself. The sporting win was recruited in the service of its cultural and political dream.

One clapping, one moving

I just remembered who used to talk about sport as a creative collaboration not a competition. It was Mark Izrailovich Dvoretsky, one of the greatest chess trainers of all time. I can’t find the reference, (yet) but he warned players against too much focus on one’s own strategy. Chess is not a game with ‘one player moving, and the other clapping’ he liked to say. That’s another quote in search of a definitive reference, as well as another example of chess as a source of strategic insights.

England expects a heroic performance: No pressure then, Jonny

February 3, 2007

[Updated post] A new international rugby coach risks all by bringing back world-cup hero Jonny Wilkinson into a vital international match between England and Scotland. Wilkinson, sidelined by injury for several years, may be unable to meet the expectations of coach Brian Ashton and England’s supporters. The decision, regardless of Wilco’s performance, seems to place short-term gain over longer-term investment in his and England Rugby’s recovery to full health.


The original post anticipated the importance of Jonny Wilkinsono England’s prospects before a major international game. It had renewed relevance, as England faced the prospect of going out of the 2007 World Cup after the preliminary stage, in September 2007

The six nations rugby tournament begins this weekend, with matches in Italy (against last year’s six nations champions, France), England, current world champions (against Scotland), and Wales (against this year’s six-nations favourites, Ireland). All clear? Probably not unless you are a rugby fan already knowledgeable about the fluctuations in fortunes of the six national teams involved.

Leadership stories abound in these contests. In England rugby, for example, the current team still suffers from comparisons with World Cup victory through the on-field heroics of a team, and off field back-up largely conceived and marshalled by Clive Woodward (subsequently knighted for his achievement). The hero of heroes on field was, by universal acclaim, Jonny Wilkinson. After the world cup, England’s fortunes and Wilkinson’s health dipped drastically. The team, widely regarded as aging, had peaked in that last-gasp win. Sir Clive sets off on a personal Odyssey which takes him out of Rugby, into a top administrator for the forthcoming Olympic games in London, via a curious stay in the another sort of football (no, not Rugby league but soccer). The majority of the world cup winners are pensioned off. And, worse of all, Jonny Wilkinson suffered injury after injury.

On the coaching side, Sir Clive’s replacement Andy Robinson presided over the decline before paying the ultimate penalty (after a sequence of losses, and stout denials that his job was in danger). The chop came shortly after a super-coach was appointed to review such matters. The super-coach was Rob Andrew, an iconic former international, and ironically Wilkinson’s mentor and successful coach at the Newcastle Falcons team. Andrew brought in the new coach Brian Ashton prior to the six seasons tourney.

AS the BBC reported it

The BBC reported on the decision to play Wilkinson.

It will have been 1,169 long days. On Saturday, Jonny Wilkinson finally returns to action in an England shirt. Another Saturday way back in November 2003 was the historic moment when the Newcastle fly-half dropped the goal that clinched the Rugby World Cup against Australia in Sydney. From the peak of that iconic moment, Wilkinson has been plagued by a host of injuries.

The article provides a helpful and vivid graphic of Jonny, pinpointing no fewer than eleven body parts that have received medical treatment. Further details are provided of the injuries to the Wilkinson neck, shoulder, arms, knees, groin, appendix and (most recently) kidney.

Informed opinion is divided on the decision to play Jonny Wilkinson. Like many other rugby supporters I have an opinion that is considerably less well-informed than the various views expressed in the media.

Nevertheless, here’s what I think

The decision to play Wilkinson is foolishly courageous. Two risks have been balanced. The first is the risk of playing Wilko when he is less that prepared for his international return. The newly departed coach Andy Robinson argued that the risk would be too high. The other risk is that a good start today is important for England’s future as it will get the new coaching regime off to a positive start. So the win is vital not just short-term but longer term. The new coach does not argue this way, but insists that Jonny is ready and able to play.

I think we have an example of the Tarrasch leadership principle. The decision might have been made for one of several reasons: because the coach could select Jonny (he’s available), because he felt he had to select him (compulsion), or because he balanced the options are decided he wanted to select him (voluntary option).

I don’t think it’s the first of the reasons. Pre-match, the coach talks as if there’s no compulsion, and that he had taken an obvious decision (A non-brainer, in fact). Not sure I find that convincing. It seems more likely that Brian Ashton was all too aware of the pressures on him as coach to succeed, not just soon, but now, this weekend. This is particularly acute, as Scotland is not seen as among the strongest of the teams in the tournament. To lose today would set off the critics about England’s subsequent chances of success.

I don’t know how the gamble will turn out. I’m looking forward to finding out, and suspect the result will not be determined by a JW act of genius. I am more sure that Brian Ashton will take the credit or blame for the decision. Also, that the decision has weighed up the future of one of the team’s greatest possible assets and decided to risk that for a short-term gain. I’m with Andy Robinson on this, and will have to be convinced otherwise unless there truly is a heroic and magical performance this afternoon. No pressures then, Jonny.

Postscript: And so it came to pass

And so it came to pass that Jonny Wilkinson played a heroic and magical game. And played a great part in an England victory. And it will be written that a great leader off the field was justified in what I considered a foolishly courageous leadership decision. And am I therefore convinced that Brian Ashton’s leadership decision was ‘right’?

He was right that Wilco was ready to play at international level. Respect and credit for that. I’m still musing on the possibility that sporting leaders, like military leaders have to be prepared to put at people at risk to increase chances of achieving strategic goals, whether the goals can be justified or not. And that may differentiate such leaders from a lot of other people.