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22 October 2015

Strategy is dependent on context and England’s rugby coach was fighting the previous war

Team culture can’t be reasoned away. 

By Ed Smith

Which came first, the winning or the attitude? This is sport’s version of “the chicken or the egg?”. The vivid subplot of this year’s Rugby World Cup is the contested concept of “team culture”: is it myth or reality? If winning is all about bonhomie, the former Australian captain Michael Lynagh quipped, then pick the comedian James Corden.

The England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, a devotee of holistic management, has been ridiculed. Chuck him out, the game’s great voices have thundered – and if the ­potential replacement ever mentions “team culture”, show him the door as well. Mike Atherton, the former England cricket captain, went further, implying that sporting “culture” is a conscious fraud, cooked up to attract sponsors.

“Culture” is now used so loosely that its meaning has reversed. Positive team culture, far from being a cuddly and corporate-friendly “niceness”, is straight-talking and brutally exacting. It’s not fluffy, it’s flinty.

A player who says to a team-mate, “We don’t do that here,” consciously bears the risk of unpopularity. That is how good cultures operate: senior players police values and reinforce good habits. Did you speak up when it mattered, at your own risk, to serve the team’s needs? Bravery – political and psychological bravery, not just the physical kind – trumps niceness every time.

Geniality is a tiny aspect of team spirit. A pointless surfeit of good-luck handshakes is enough to make any performer yearn for bracing cynicism.

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But team culture can’t be reasoned away. It is ironic that spectators and pundits have thrilled to the practical manifestation of positive team culture while ridiculing the theory. When Wales defended against a dominant England pack in the group stages, their bodies were pushed backwards for 60 minutes. In spirit, they never yielded a step. What is that if not team culture?

Two weeks later, Wales’s 15 men threatened to bully Australia’s 13. In a definitive passage of play, it was Wales’s turn to be repelled by a titanic defensive effort. One chink in the Australian defensive line, and the game looked lost: there was no one left on the field to provide cover defence. But again, Australia’s survival was made possible by a resilient team culture.

Sceptics would say these were actions rather than words. The actions nonetheless rested on ideas: commitment, unity, co-operation, communication and bravery. Written down, they may dissolve into a series of clichés. Yet they are real.

Lancaster’s mistake was not to believe in the value of culture but to broadcast that faith. His sin was not credulousness, but piousness. The error was not trying to improve the culture of England rugby but failing to shift his focus when he’d achieved it. Strategy is dependent on context and Lancaster was fighting the previous war.

He came to power after the bleak 2011 World Cup, when the England team’s drunken “dwarf-throwing” antics prompted the
assumption that off-field ill-discipline had filtered down to the pitch. He promised to reverse the equation, off-field virtuousness percolating on to the field of play. Both theories, in fact, are retrospective oversimplifications: the former sells newspapers, the latter props up the self-help industry.

By talking too much about culture, Lancaster not only provided unnecessary hostages to fortune, he also irritated people. What about sportsmen who had triumphed without wider ideals: was theirs a lesser victory? And the losers? Must they believe that if they had spent more energy on becoming better people, they would have won more? Like any sphere of human activity, sport’s core is solidly sceptical, its fringe actively cynical. Don’t provoke them. Lancaster entered the tournament with several sporting constituencies ready to turn on him. They didn’t have long to wait.

One profession has been unfairly tarnished by the England campaign. Lancaster is a former PE teacher and his lack of nimbleness, savvy and quick thinking is widely interpreted as “schoolmasterly”. Yet those are exactly the qualities that set great teachers apart. If he had demonstrated the qualities of a truly talented teacher, England would still be in the World Cup.

What now? In appointing coaches, English sports administrators usually behave like jilted teenagers. First, they reflect on the character of the previous (and now discredited) lover, then they blindly and wildly pursue the opposite. Decisions flow from neediness rather than needs. Feeling undisciplined under the matey Steve McClaren? Bring in the austere Fabio Capello.

The short-sighted replacement for Lancaster would be an inverse Lancaster. Reinforcing the current narrative (or rationalisation) of defeat, however, would encourage overshoot in the opposite direction. If a cynical new coach were to announce, in the words of the Aussie cricketer Allan Border, “I’d rather be a prick and win,” it might inspire applause at the press conference. But it wouldn’t improve England’s passing or lack of presence at the breakdown.

Instead of a PR quick fix, England should remember that the real job of a coach is to gauge and tweak a set of binaries: between individualism and the collective, between risk and control, between consistency and surprise, between planning and openness, between the necessary fear of authority and the celebration of self-expression.

Human nature never changes. In the management of men, there can be no new ideas: just fine balances, always in flux, ­constantly tilting out of equilibrium. Those balances constitute the vital organs of the team’s body. The coach acts as the doctor of the team’s health – or, if you prefer, the guardian of the team’s culture.

There is no escaping that duty. But it’s best not to talk about it.

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy