Lessons from England’s early exit from Rugby World Cup

There has been so much hysteria and so many rantings since England lost to Australia, that I thought I would see what it might teach us about managing change.  Obviously there are two elements to all this, much as there are to most business issues.  There the cold hard facts, and how they are interpreted which is often influenced by the second element which is how people feel about it all. 

It was openly acknowledged that England were only part way through rebuilding their team with many new and inexperienced players.  We had only 25 caps per player which was the fourth least in the tournament and almost half those of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.  Whilst we had a big pool of talent to pick from we had not been able to field a settled side at any stage during the build up with Lancaster having tried 14 different mid-field pairings.  We were ranked 4th in the world prior to the World Cup, so mathematically we should have made the semi-finals, but we were also in the so called “Pool of Death”, which contained the 4th, 5th, 6th & 10th best sides in the world, so it was clear that all 8 of the top teams couldn’t make the quarter finals.  So why was everyone so shocked that we lost to two very good & more experienced  teams?

Change is a continual process and events such as the World Cup measure where you are on a particular day.  I have no doubt that we could and probably should have beaten Wales, but I think even at our best we would have struggled to match Australia playing that well. 

One of the reasons I find rugby so compelling is the two of the key elements are leadership and communication, the same as in business.  Modern rugby is a game which relies on disbursed leadership, with someone handling defence in the backs, someone responsible for attack, another for lineout calls, and the overall team decisions.  Poor Chris Robshaw had to take all the criticism for the call to take the lineout in the dying minutes of the Welsh game, but I suspect someone else made the key call to throw it to the front. He has taken the leader’s role and protected his team mates from the public’s fury.  This will keep the team united.

There are already cries to throw out the coaching team and the captain and the head of the Rugby Union, but if we want to make good decisions we need to do so based on facts.  England didn’t make that many errors when they lost to Australia and were acknowledged as winning the first 60 minutes of the game against Wales so how can we need wholesale change?  It maybe that we need a fresh hand on the helm to help us with the next phase of our development but this should be because of where we are now and what we need now not because the current team failed.  There is no doubt Lancaster succeeded in building a strong squad culture and identified and developed some bright new talent.  Yes, you can use pain as a spur, but in the long term we don’t want these players to feel like failures because they failed on this occasion.  The job is to great over time not at a single moment in time. 

Did the team have a game plan?  I’m sure they did.  Was it based on much and detailed clever analysis?  I’m sure it was.  Did they execute it?  I don’t know but it is a well known military truism that  “No plan survives contact with the enemy” and did they players feel empowered and able to play ‘heads up’ rugby?  I think that is one place we fell down.  I also think we lack certain basic skills in the loose and we don’t have kicker who puts the ball behind the opposition. 

In the end, a team will only succeed if you have the right people with the right skills and they feel empowered to make the right decisions on the ground.  A team, or a business, needs a certain amount of experienced heads to give weight and perspective, and the right number of younger, more energetic youngsters trying new things.  Success come from getting the balance right.

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