Leadership lessons from Free State Rugby
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.
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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.
PART OF A TEAM
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?