The harsh reality of test match rugby

In the narrative, social constructionist world of human perspectives and viewpoints, there is no one universal truth that can describe and explain any interpersonal event or situation. The full complexity of any story only begins to emerge once a diversity of perspectives are voiced and understood.

In the world of ‘multiversa’, or multiple evolving perspectives, no one view is considered more important than another. Each perspective, no matter how different, helps to provide a deeper understanding of the issue at hand. The differences in perspectives are where the dilemmas exist and where the debates (preferably dialogues) unfold.

Still smoking from all the action by Giaco Angelini

I found two interesting and somewhat contrasting perspectives of how we should view the recent slump in the performance of the South African rugby team published in the BusinessToday. The perspectives also offer suggestions of how we should respond to the problem.

The one view ‘mocking magical All Blacks for peaking too soon is just nonsense’ was written by Mark Keohane, a respected rugby journalist, the other view ‘senior Boks need an eight-week break’ was a reported interview given by Tim Noakes, a respected sports scientist. Fundamentally the two perspectives ask us to examine the meaning of an international rugby test match played between two countries who pit their best players against each other time and time again, coupled with the importance of trying to peak and win a World Cup tournament that comes around every four years (in order to be crowned World Champions).

Keohane argues that management needs to evaluate each test performance in its own right and not hide behind any upcoming World Cup event in order to explain poor performance (due to experimentation and/or the resting of  top players) since this would undermine the essence of test match rugby. He calls on management to be accountable for every test match played, stating that it is the responsibility of any test team to always give of their best when playing for their country. He also implies that a test team should always comprise of your best players.

Noakes, on the other hand, contends that the older, experienced, senior players need an immediate eight week rest from playing any test match rugby due to them being over-stressed and over-tired if we are to have any chance of winning the 2011 World Cup. His concern is to ensure that the 2011 world cup team, with all of its experienced players, are fresh and ready to defend the title. If management were to heed his call it would mean players such as Smit, Steenkamp, Matfield, Russouw, Spies, Burger, Steyn, Fourie, de Villiers, Habana, missing the upcoming sold-out test match against the All Blacks at Soccer City on the 21 August.  And all for the sake of trying to win a world cup tournament where there are no guarantees or certainties as to the final outcome anyway? How would this be interpreted by players, public and the wider rugby audience?

There are many assumptions and beliefs that underpin any perspective. Beliefs and assumptions are the  subterranean building blocks that determine the course of action or decisions taken by individuals. Any decision-maker (coach or manager) who leads a group process needs to be mindful of the beliefs and tacit assumptions that underpin his thinking.

There seem to be two beliefs presently doing the rounds in South African rugby.

  • Firstly, there is a belief that a poor performing team in the year preceding the world cup is not necessarily a bad thing. This belief is based on the poor performance of the 2006 team under Jake White that then eventually won the world cup tournament in 2007. In holding onto this belief, little or no mention is ever made of the fact that due to the pool system and knock out process that the 2007 team did not play against three of the top 4 teams (All Blacks, Australia, France) at any stage of the whole tournament.
  • Secondly, there is the belief that it is always an experienced team that will win the world cup. Beliefs are usually considered facts and historical data is called on to support the assertion, and in this case the success of the experienced 2003 England team, led by Martin Johnson, is cited.

I believe that the performances of the present group of South Africa players peaked as a unit in 2009 (where factors such as age, experience, leadership,  skill levels, combinations, creative energy, lack of injury, all blended together to create a formidable unified synergy). Our attempt to hold onto this success and keep the majority of the 2007 group together (or the 2009 team) till 2011 may be at the core of the performance issues that are being experienced in the team at this moment in time.

Rugby is a physically demanding contact sport that results in a high level of attrition. In a 4 year time span the historical patterns that have unfolded over the years suggest that only around 30% of players in a team move from world cup to world cup. That is the harsh reality of international rugby. Given this, one cannot hold onto a ‘team’ comprising of names. Instead, the idea of ‘team’ needs to be that of a fluid and dynamic evolving group of players where changes in personnel occur naturally over time in such a way that the culture, professionalism and standard/quality of play remain intact and are not sacrificed; especially with regard test match rugby. For this to unfold, however, an astute coaching/management team needs to always be one step ahead of the unfolding process of a team’s natural evolutionary cycle.

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