SA rugby and succession planning

The rugby world cup happens every four years. The next world cup tournament is in New Zealand in 2011.

The 2009 South African rugby team have had a remarkable season. In a previous posting, I stated that teams have life cycles and that the present coach was benefitting from the ‘harvest phase’ of this team. There is such a wealth of experience, individual leadership and talent in the team. More importantly, all of the combinations in the team are settled and have been together for a number of matches. As a case in point, the lock pairing of Matfield and Botha have played together for over 50 test matches. In every match, one or other player breaks some ‘statistical record’. John Smit, for example, is the most capped captain in world rugby.

On Tuesday, I was watching a rugby sports talk show and one of the experts, John Robbie, stated that the coach may find himself in a difficult situation in the near future since he may need to start ‘culling’ some of the ‘older’ team players (even though they were such a fantastic team), in order to bring in some younger players so that we can be fully prepared for the 2011 world cup. The CEO of South African rugby seemed to be taken aback by this comment and responded by saying that this team was mature and successful and that the players were all motivated to be part of the 2011 team. He stated that they had such high standards for themselves and he saw no reason why this team could not remain together and win the 2011 cup.

It is not unusual for administrators and coaches to try to hold onto a successful team and in the process become short-sighted and ‘get stuck in time’. Rugby is a physically demanding sport and the shelf life of a top elite rugby player is not very long when compared to other sports. This is the harsh reality of rugby. It was also fortunate that the team had very few injuries this season, but not all seasons may be like this.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with South African cricketer Daryll Cullinan about the value of statistics in cricket. On a basic level, there are batting and bowling averages. Daryll felt that ‘statistics never lie’. He made the point that if a batsman, for example, was only averaging 30, the chances of him getting a 100 were very slim. Yes, it could happen (since nothing is impossible), but it would probably be a once-off. In his playing days, Daryll was an astute and deep-thinking cricketer and would get those around him to become more grounded and realistic by referring to statistics if they were fantasising about unrealistic outcomes or involved with ‘if this, then that…’ type of hypothetical talk. In Daryll’s eyes, statistics were nothing more than a ‘reality check’.

Remembering this, I decided to do research and get some statistics on the ‘carry over’ of players from world cup to world cup. This is what I found:

  • 2 players from the first post apartheid test team that played against Australia in August 1992 were eventually picked for the 1995 world cup squad (13% of the 1992 team got to play in the 1995 world cup).
  • 7 players from 1995 world cup squad of 27 players were picked in the 1999 squad, i.e. 25,9% of the 1995 squad made it to 1999.
  • 3 players from the 1999 world cup squad made it to the 2003 squad (10% of players with previous experience).
  • 8 players from the 2003 world cup, and 4 players from the 1999 squad played in the 2007 world cup in France (37,5% of the players had previous world cup experience).

In the 2009 tri-nations squad that played in the test matches, 16 of the 22 players had played in the 2007 world cup (that is a whopping 72,7% of the players with previous world cup experience). It has been this amazing amount of experience wrapped up in one team that has contributed to their success.

It is now exactly in the middle of the four year time period between world cups and the management may unknowingly be facing this dilemma: While the 2009 team has achieved remarkable results, it is growing ‘old’. Can it sustain itself over time?

If you believe in statistics and scientific extrapolation then not more than 37,5% of the 2007 world cup squad are likely to make it into the 2011 world cup squad. This means that only 11 of the  2007  world cup winning team will experience the 2011 world cup. If one has to translate this to a more harsher realisation to the present 2009 test squad that won the tri-nations, then 5 of their 16 most experienced players who have had 2007 world cup experience will not make it to 2011.

On an emotional level, one may be tempted to deny or reject the historical statistical data that exists. Succession planning attempts to look at the bigger picture as a team unfolds over time. This is not an easy process for a coach, since the coach gets emotionally attached to the players and the success that has been achieved. In my experience, coaches usually find it impossible to make decisions to change a mature, winning team. Usually, a team starts naturally decaying and begins to lose. This then forces the coach to make changes.

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