Professor Damian Hughes, author and podcaster, often says that “Success leaves clues” – and he is absolutely right. “Losses leave scars” and “but you have to lose to win” – those are my words, and the reason this piece is necessary. It is by no means intended as a brag – because we have nothing to brag about – but more to promote conversation and thinking around how we can all be better at building great teams.

I love a campaign – the focus, the energy, the relentless pursuit of a purpose, a goal and a set of values. I love the creativity required, the test of people’s leadership under a constant need for results, the adaptability required and the constant ‘feedback’ obtained. I also love to sit down at the end of any campaign and pen my learnings – if I can’t share those, then what really is the point!

I had the privilege of coaching the University of Cape Town’s Rugby team in the Varsity Cup of 2023 (my 4th campaign) – we lost in the final by 2 points.

Some context

Coming off the back of a semi-final spot in 2020 (COVID hit mid-competition so the semis weren’t played), a final loss by 7 points in ’21, a semi-final loss in ’22, the goal was clear.

Purpose has always sat at the forefront of this club – building young people who can express their talents and grow through their experience of being part of something that values competing, connection with others and being truly real. This has to be done in a way that is unique and oft against the grain of the norms. Joy must trump fear, relationships must trump selfishness, individualism over conformity, human capital over resources and laughter over the grind.

The club operates on donations alone and has minimal interest from the university itself. It is largely an academic/research university – which is understandable.

Recruitment is constrained by the academic requirements of getting in (anything south of a 70% matric aggregate makes it tough to get in), as well as the limited nature of bursary funding. You also need all players to obtain sufficient credits from the previous year’s studies to remain eligible – this year we lost an unprecedented 6 players half way through pre-season because they had not reached those limits – 4 were in the same specialist position! Someone in that same position withdrew from the squad after 1 match of the competition for personal reasons.

My long-term assistant, trusted ally and top quality coach, Craig Childs, was appointed to a role at a professional franchise half way through pre-season – he was MASSIVE for the team – this was a blow!

In 3 matches we had used more players than we had selected in any entire campaign I had done previously – injuries beset us!

The communication between referee and TMO failed at a pivotal moment of the 1st match allowing a try that would prove the difference in the game – I was apologised to afterwards for a few decisions. But we lost game 1 (and we lost game 3 too – of a 7 game round-robin – pressure on!).

This was one of the most testing, but enriching rollercoaster rides I have ever been part of for some of the reasons above as well as others! It is the difficulty which makes it significant and memorable, and probably why there are learnings to be had. I will share a few.

You are nothing on your own

Head coaches in sport are over-glorified. They are great when the team wins and shit when they don’t. My truth is that I think coaching teams work or don’t work – not coaches individually. When we set out in October to collaborate more effectively it was on the back of the realisation that coaching sport is chaotic, and the only way to counter chaos is through collaboration – not through one person trying to control everything. I am blessed to have some superb technical skill coaching with me, but more importantly I believe that the ability of Josh Strauss and Gerrie Visser to be the players’ friends and confidants makes them special. This combines with the care and consideration of the highly emotionally intelligent Nic Groom, the poise and consistency of a Paul Day with the incredible strategic insight and simplification of Robbie Fleck. You take one of those pieces of the recipe out, and suddenly the meal doesn’t taste so good. We did argue, I did annoy them – a lot – and they annoyed me. There were times when I felt we got casual, times when they felt I was too emotional, but we were always able to pull things back through being honest with each other. The truth is without each other, none of us are exceptional. Well, I certainly am not!

Idealism and Reality aren’t always aligned

The All Blacks said, “No Dickheads allowed” – basically outlining that only certain characters would fit in their team. I think even they stretch that a little when required. As much as one wants to have this ideal team of team players who have nothing but care for others and an ability to compete daily, that rarely happens. I found a lot of my players to have very strong individual aspirations – sometimes to the detriment of what the team needed. I found at times some players wouldn’t take on feedback, or wouldn’t hold their training standards as high as we’d have liked. Does this mean the team is a failure? Or us as coaches are failures? No. It is the pursuit of excellence and betterment which is more important. There is a difference between someone being selfish because they want to do well and someone being selfish because they want someone else to do poorly. I had to accept that, as hard as it was for me. The more I sought ideal the more frustrated I got, the more I accepted the better we all became. I found this team to be filled with aspiration and good intent – just sometimes misguided. My learning is to keep working on people, keep connecting with people, keep pushing for excellence rather than adopting an approach of writing people off as ‘dickheads’ – in this competition you cannot afford to anyway.

There is no perfect mindset

I stood in the change room before both the semi-final and final of this competition and saw something I don’t think I have fully seen before. The nervous energy, tension and intent was there – but so was euphoria, excitement, smiles and deep connection. Our jersey hand outs are totally different to anything else I have seen. Manager Raun Billett (a giant of a human being) is a master here, and together with our long-serving and true father-figure Mike Van Rheede (physio) they were able to create a feeling second to none before games. Whilst last year’s team may have required some more rev and a bit of anger, this year’s were so connected by purpose that in fact some lightening of the mood and simply reminding them of their roles was what was most required. My personal team talks had to change in order to suit that need. Players in hysterics just before a game won’t scare me anymore, so long as the plan is clear and the desire deep.

Discretionary effort is the goal

When your lead S&C (Piet Cilliers, a high-potential young man) is willing to wash bibs, arrive at 5am to open up the club and attend every social (ok I think he just likes these anyway!) – all beyond his remit – you know you are onto something. Discretionary effort is the silver bullet. Rugby is a game where effort meets skill. Rob Fleck said at half-time of one game – “Effort over skill, boys”. And this line stuck throughout the rest of the campaign. Whether it is coaches baking muffins and brownies for the boys, or coaches taking time away from their families to spend time with the players in our ‘buy-in’ time, effort is not in short-supply. My learning was that when your environment screams, ‘go beyond the norm’, players begin to respond through their own actions – that is when the whole begins to outweigh the sum of its parts. This effort, however, never appeared to come from a narrative of sacrifice or grind, but rather from one of enjoyment, connection and a desire to compete (the house system is a whole story for another article)

Identities change – be ready to move

It was one practice in early December and we finally allowed the players a bit of live contact. We got the energetic reaction similar to that of my niece recently going to Peppa Pig Live! AMPED!!

I realised then and there that this team was forming a different identity to teams past and we, as leadership, needed to pick up the baton and run with it. This team loved confrontation and physical dominance more than any other I had seen previously. We used this and built a narrative around it. Training never became a slug-fest, and in fact there was probably less live contact in this pre-season than any before. Having said that, we began to build a narrative, reward behaviours, select players and train technique around this idea of physicality – we called it FUE! This wasn’t false or contrived, it was authentic, and it was what was needed for the team to succeed. The power of a narrative, backed up by real behaviours, is something that is massive in getting teams to succeed – this competition highlighted that.

And lastly …

Know your desperation

Desperation can manifest in many ways – sometimes positive, sometimes not. As team leader you want to embody passion and connection. Desperation can sometimes erode those qualities you are wanting to embody. I have written about this before, but I realised that this desperation can have a negative effect on both you and those around you. I don’t think I got this right at all, but the learning was still there.

This campaign was exhausting but meaningful. The bonds, the growth and memories are strong. We didn’t win the cup and so it won’t go down on the walls of the club or the annals of history. But if we don’t celebrate what we did get then we will always mope in what we didn’t – and what is more likely to make you better? Celebration or moping? In the famous words so oft used at UCT – “The more we celebrate, the more we celebrate”.

This piece is dedicated to all those who make this fine club work, and all who sacrificed so much time and attention to being part of something amazing. Thank you.

Tom Dawson Squibb
Ikey Tigers Head Coach