What rugby tells us about what makes teams tick

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It wasn’t the best Six Nations tournament for England.

Following their bitterly cold 15-24 defeat to Ireland on 17 March, England came fifth in the championship as a whole, and experts have lined up to say that the team is in need of a rethink.

Sport governing body Rugby Football Union (RFU) acknowledged as much, with chief executive Steve Brown saying: “We will learn from this and make sure it doesn’t happen again. No one is patting each other on the back – they’re looking for solutions to put us back to where we were before.”

Brown supports Eddie Jones’ continuation as team coach. “It’s worth reflecting that Eddie has an 86% win record with England,” he stressed. “You don’t become a bad coach or team overnight. But we have to learn, and have to improve.”

In comments Jones himself made in the weeks up to the Ireland defeat, he was obviously aware of some of the shortcomings of his squad. Speaking to the BBC late last month, the coach conceded that the team was having issues with leadership and collaboration.

Stable and robust

“We’ve always known that we have to improve in our leadership,” Jones said. “That’s an ongoing issue for us, and something that takes time and is not solved overnight.”

Jones noted: “It takes development, intellectual input, consultation, discussion – and we are doing all those things and moving in the right direction.”

He added: “I always give the example of the All Blacks. It took them eight years to come up with a stable and robust leadership model to win the World Cup. We are aiming to do that, and we’ve had two years together.”

With all that in mind, what can rugby tell us about how teams work when they’re collaborating well?

There are three, really interesting aspects of how rugby works as a machine: i) its original design as a game to include all boys whatever their body shape or athleticism; ii) the in-built handicap of mandatory back-passing, and iii) how that respect for difference combines with the mandatory back passing to provide the potential for the game to flourish as a living model of shared leadership.

Rugby’s greatest source of drama is that every team member has to be behind the player with the ball. So, you could argue that whoever has the ball at any one point in time is the ‘leader’ – for he or she has 14 followers. And that shifts all the time.

Trust in the ranks

To complement that, there’s also a high requirement for specialist input. That’s very much a feature of how rugby was designed to ensure that there would be a position on the field for every boy – as it was back in the sport’s early days – in the school.

So the rest of the team has to trust that whoever has the ball will make the right decision for the game as it’s happening, while being on hand to provide their specialist assistance. That seems absolutely key to what Jones is getting at: confidence in a leadership model stems from the participants having a high degree of trust in each other.

Now clearly, there are broader decisions that must be made about styles of play, or specific approaches that should be taken during matches against particular sides but that responsibility for responding in the moment, making the right decision cannot rest on only one set of shoulders – however broad. 

But again, if you have that confidence in the ranks – and that trust and belief in each other – those decisions can be made in the knowledge that they’re going to get everyone’s full support to make them work.

Even at senior club level, you’ll occasionally see players grandstanding, as though they’re going to take on the opposition all by themselves. But, of course, that self-centred approach routinely runs aground.

Perhaps more than any other sport, rugby really evidences the importance of trust to the teamwork equation. When that person’s at the front, you’ve got to get behind them – both literally and figuratively. And they have to know they can depend upon you.

About Kate Cooper

About Kate Cooper

Prior to joining The Institute of Leadership & Management Kate Cooper worked in the university sector. She has appeared on, amongst others, BBC Television, BBC Radio 4 and has a regular column in Dialogue magazine. She is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s research agenda. 

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