Lead­er­ship lessons from Free State Rugby

Finweek English Edition - - INSIGHT: LOCAL - Nick van der Leek

The Free State Chee­tahs have been one of the real sur­prises in the Su­per 15 this year, with a num­ber of con­sec­u­tive wins in Aus­tralia and New Zealand. Their phe­nom­e­nal form in this year’s com­pe­ti­tion proves that as­tute man­age­ment of a ca­pa­ble team can de­liver re­sults against unions with big­ger bud­gets and star play­ers. The team’s re­cent win in Bloem­fontein against a high-pro­file Storm­ers side in the dy­ing min­utes of the game prompted a spec­ta­tor to gush: “That’s the sort of must-win men­tal­ity typ­i­cal of an All Black team.”

The day be­fore, Chee­tah strong­man and team cap­tain Adri­aan Strauss de­scribed the Storm­ers as “prob­a­bly the best de­fen­sive side in the com­pe­ti­tion”. A sub­tle shift in mind­set was ev­i­dent from his choice of words dur­ing an in­ter­view with Su­perS­port. He cor­rected him­self a few times af­ter start­ing sen­tences with “We want...” and then say­ing “I be­lieve we will...” in­stead.

The next day Strauss him­self had a mas­sive game. He was on the front lines, was in­stru­men­tal in his team’s first try and his self-con­fi­dence clearly also in­spired the rest of the Chee­tah side. Any leader is some­times con­fronted with a sit­u­a­tion where the best peo­ple for the job are not avail­able and he needs to tap into new tal­ent. Fol­low­ing the Chee­tahs’ try in the sec­ond half, the team struc­ture was tested when util­ity back Ryno Ben­jamin had to do emer­gency work for 25 min­utes as re­place­ment scrum half when Sarel Pre­to­rius had to leave the field three min­utes af­ter scor­ing a cru­cial try. “At that stage we were in trou­ble,” coach Naka Drot­ské said af­ter­wards, adding: “Ben­jamin’s per­for­mance prob­a­bly saved us the match.”

Con­sid­er­ing t hat Ben­jamin is not a spe­cia l i st scr um half, and f ly half Bur­ton Fran­cis (aged 26 and man of the match) is the fourth-choice op­tion in the line-up, Drot­ské’s praise is im­por­tant for man­agers to con­sider: Con­sis­tently en­cour­age upand-coming team mem­bers who play out of their com­fort zone, but also re­mind them that good in­di­vid­ual per­for­mances come about when the team gets the vi­tal mix right – mind­set, struc­ture and strat­egy.


When asked about the key rea­son for his team’s success, Strauss cred­ited his “young squad” – the av­er­age age of the Chee­tah side is 25. He added that the new guys aren’t car­ry­ing around any bag­gage from near-wins where the team lost by seven points or less. Los­ing can quickly be­come a cul­ture

when an or­gan­i­sa­tion re­peat­edly fails.

Speak­ing on the show Boots & All, Strauss said the ap­proach isn’t about the num­ber of con­sec­u­tive wins. “I don’t think that’s our aim. We’re not think­ing about five con­sec­u­tive wins, or six or four, we want to win ev­ery game. So it’s a mind­set change. We go into ev­ery sin­gle game know­ing we can win; we be­lieve we can win.”


“War sto­ries and project meet­ings cre­ate a con­text in which teams can move from the old to the new,” said former Proc­ter & Gam­ble prod­uct spe­cial­ist Bruce Han­son, and the same prin­ci­ples can be ap­plied to the Chee­tahs.

Strauss says: “Os du Randt (the most capped for­ward in Spring­bok his­tory) has drilled us on our li­ne­outs. That’s some­thing we work hard on ev­ery sin­gle week; our l i ne­out drives, scrum t i me and de­fence…”

De­spite the likes of play­ers like Lig­tor­ing Land­man, Boom Prinsloo, Ray­mond Rhule, Coe­nie “Shrek ” Oosthuizen and the feisty scav­enger Hein­rich Brüs­sow, the Chee­tahs of­ten lack the big names of the other prov­inces. How­ever, many of the Chee­tahs who have gone on to be Spring­boks are highly re­garded as game chang­ers, of­ten as a re­sult of deeply-in­stilled work ethic. Jo­han van Zyl, CEO of the Chee­tahs and pres­i­dent of spon­sors Toy­ota South Africa, says there are sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two brands. “Toy­ota’s phi­los­o­phy of kaizen – con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment – res­onates well with the Chee­tah team, and we en­cour­age them to con­tinue with the good sea­son to date and find ways to con­sis­tently im­prove ev­ery

as­pect of their game,” he told Fin­week.


Former Spring­bok Bren­dan Venter re­cently com­mented that “the Chee­tahs’ great­est area of im­prove­ment has been on de­fence. When Drot­ské stud­ied the stats fol­low­ing the side’s tenth-place f in­ish in 2012, de­fence would have been the one facet of play that re­quired the most rem­edy.”

Venter says it was Spring­bok coach Heyneke Meyer who made it pos­si­ble for the Chee­tah man­age­ment to pick the brain of renowned de­fence guru John McFar­land for three days ear­lier in the sea­son. McFar­land, along with fel­low mem­bers of the Spring­bok coach­ing staff, also vis­ited the other South African fran­chises.

But what does Strauss have to say about this? “We changed things in our struc­ture. We’ve changed our an­gle… this year we’re try­ing to stay more square, go­ing up in a straight line.”

Jar­gon aside, what Strauss means is that spe­cific prob­lems were iden­ti­fied and the right re­sources were al­lo­cated to tack­ling the prob­lems. When they didn’t have the right in­ter­nal re­sources, they went to cred­i­ble ex­ter­nal pro­fes­sion­als and sought an­swers to very spe­cific is­sues.

The Chee­tahs’ goal coming into the sea­son was am­bi­tious: to make the play­offs. While this is likely to be a tough ask, the team has been fo­cused on this goal, and ev­ery mem­ber be­lieves he has a role to play in achiev­ing it.


Be­yond solid set pieces and out­stand­ing de­fence, there’s a strong bond not only be­tween the play­ers, but also be­tween play­ers and man­age­ment. This was par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent af­ter the re­cent game, when play­ers, man­age­ment, crew and even sup­port­ers and fam­ily mem­bers hud­dled to­gether on the f ield for many min­utes af­ter the win. Strauss com­ments: “That’s the cul­ture. You get to know the guys and you form a very tight bond with them.”

The Chee­tahs are well known for their fierce fight­ing spirit. This was clearly and amus­ingly ev­i­dent when Drot­ské was caught on cam­era while fu­ri­ously shout­ing ex­ple­tives af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing turn in the hair-rais­ing Storm­ers game.

The next test for the squad will be against the mighty men in blue who are cur­rently loung­ing un­com­fort­ably be­low their or­ange arch-ri­vals on the log. The an­tag­o­nism be­tween the Bulls and Chee­tahs is akin to those clas­sic ri­val­ries, like Bat­man against the Joker or James Bond’s clashes with SPEC­TRE – it’s our own lo­cal ver­sion of the Boks ver­sus the All Blacks. The Chee­tahs’ win­ning streak, which at the time of writ­ing it con­tin­ues, has boosted their brand name sig­nif­i­cantly, with a cor­re­spond­ing boost to their fi­nances. The team has never made it higher than tenth in the Su­per Rugby com­pe­ti­tion. It is cur­rently ranked sixth. Of the SA sides, only the Sharks are placed higher. Now the ques­tion ev­ery­one is ask­ing is: can the Chee­tahs keep mov­ing up?

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