It has been interesting to follow the reactions and comments of the management of the South African rugby team after the quarter-final loss against Australia in the World Cup. It is obvious that the team has had to deal with emotional pain. But what is this pain about? In order to get some understanding of this pain process one needs to unpack some of the fundamental messages that have come out of the camp.
Firstly, at the end of the match, the coach spoke about death and that the change room felt like a funeral. A day after the match, the assistant coach spoke about injustice and death. Then at the press conference held at the airport, the coach heaped emotional and indulgent praise on his captain and vice-captain for being icons and excellent ambassadors for their country. He spoke of it being a privilege to have worked with them and that no one could take his journey of the past 4 years away from him.
Before the tournament there were a lot of expectations on the team, and rightly so. It was a very experienced team. It was also a laager team in which it had become a closed system with little or no inflow of new outside energy. It appeared untouchable; it was in a protective cocoon that the coach had created. According to reports, the senior players enjoyed the leadership style of the coach. The reasons for this may be obvious.
During the tournament the team did not perform to potential, given its level of experience. Two of the group matches were below par. The team was lucky to beat Wales by one point but after the match, the leadership spoke of how important winning was and that it did not matter how this was achieved during the World Cup. After the Australian match the team had to face the harsh reality of experiencing the exact opposite – they had lost the match despite all of the possession and territorial advantage. It could not convert its dominance into winning. The opposition had now won ugly. The opposition had done to them what they had believed in and had verbally made known in the media.
The loss against Australia felt like death to the team. But death of what? In brief, by losing, the team was having to deal with the death of its ego (which needs accolades and wants to feel important and successful). In this death process it had moved through the disbelief phase (this can’t be happening to us); the blame phase (this is unfair) and then the denial phase in which management does not acknowledge or want to address some of the issues or reasons that may have contributed to the loss but instead turns its focus within the team and gives excessive public praise to team members for practising and behaving in ways that are actually expected of professional athletes.
Some of the comments after the loss suggest that an inflated ego had evolved in the team over time. The underlying messages of self-importance that were conveyed by management suggested that the opposition were considered unworthy and/or undeserving of beating the team. The team felt that there was an injustice and unfairness in the final outcome. There was also talk about the incompetence of the referee that prevented their success. In doing this, the team was negating its own responsibility for its failure.
Did the team let the country down? I don’t feel that they did. They tried their best, they prepared and trained like professionals need to; but on the day they were not good enough. They lost. They lost because they did not have the capacity to turn dominance and attack into points. The team has always been more comfortable with its defensive patterns and its tenacity to tackle and absorb pressure from the opponents. Its attacking and creative ability has always been in doubt. The team needs to accept this.
In sport there are no guarantees. The game of rugby does not owe any team or player anything. As we move into the future, I hope that we can develop a more egoless and mature approach to our sport. But I wonder if we can?