Will experience be enough?

Pieter de Villiers, the coach of the South African rugby team, can be given credit for achieving the seemingly impossible – he has managed to keep the bulk of the 2007 World Champion team together for 4 years. Now is the time to see if his policy of retaining (and nurturing) the older more experienced players will pay off.

The South African rugby team will be the most experienced team to play in the tournament. 60% of the team have had previous World Cup experience. This is unheard of in the physically demanding sport of rugby with its high attrition rate. The previous most experienced South African team to go to the tournament was in 2007 (where the team had 37.5% of players with previous World Cup experience).

Two years ago the coach was faced with a dilemma that required serious contemplation. Was he going to embark on a process of succession planning of players that would introduce new energy into an aging team or was he going to opt for a ‘no change’, non-disruptive decision that would appease his senior players? Now 5 days before the start of the tournament, the South African team has all of the necessary experience to call on – but will this be enough to achieve its objective of retaining the Webb Ellis trophy?

de Villiers can have no excuses if the team fails. He has a team that has made his life easy as a coach. When de Villiers decided on taking the path of least resistance of allowing the team to age naturally, he aligned himself with the experienced players in a symbiotic way. He needed them and they needed him. But nothing comes without a price – what you win on the round-a-bouts you tend to lose on the swings.

Experience is akin to aging. Unlike in the business world, in sport there is a critical tipping point where experience may not translate itself fully into exceptional ongoing performance. This is mainly due to the excessive physical and competitive demands on the field of play.

But at what point does age (experience) begin to hinder peak performance? What may be some of the possible ramifications of having an aged, yet experienced team?

1. A lack of creativity, making the team predictable. The older a team, the more in-grained their patterns of play. There tends to be a rigidity in performance. Therefore the opposition will have a clear understanding of what the SA team is about – they come with no surprises.

2. The team plays a direct, physical game; trying to intimidate the opponents. If this does not work, the older players tend to get irritated and frustrated. They become less accepting when things go wrong on the field. This may result in ill discipline.

3. de Villiers talks about the value of having ‘old heads’. In a physically demanding sport such as rugby, ‘old bodies’ may not be quick and alert enough in the later stages of a match. In the past months, the team has started well and been dominant; only to fade as the match unfolds in the last quarter.

4. Older players are more prone to injury. In tournaments, injuries play a major role in disrupting a team’s internal balance. During the recent Tri-nation tournament, de Villiers used the excuse of injury to rest more than 15 senior players. It would be sad if he has tempted fate and have to deal with the actual harsh reality of injury to key players.

5. Finding a place for the captain may pose a problem for the coach. A recent statistic reveals that Smit has only won 2 of his last 10 games as captain when picked in the starting line-up.

So will the team be able to draw on all of its experience to ensure consistent top-class performance throughout the tournament, culminating in a victory in the final of the World Cup? While I have my doubts regarding the energetic and creative levels of the team, I certainly hope that they can pull it off. Two factors will enhance the chances of victory – the defensive ability of the team and the kicking skills of Morne Steyn. Experience and creativity may have less of an impact on the final outcome.

The start of a new day over Sandton

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