Square peg, round hole…

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Rugby is a funny game, from one week to the next a player or team can go from being the toast of the town to just…. Toast…

It’s unfair if you think about it. These guys run out onto the field every week to play a game, sure it’s a game they get paid to play and it’s in essence “a job” but can it ever really be a job?

They say, “find something you love to do for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I love driving fast cars but am yet to find someone willing to pay me to do that, unless of course I buy an M3 and become a pizza delivery man, which in itself would be a pointless exercise because I’d eat all the pizza, get fat and then pay the company back after I got fired.

Rugby players, though, they do get to do what they love but due to the nature of sport, and of fans, I suspect that love for the game could get soured over time. Here’s a scenario for you. A man works in an office as a designer of some sort. He loves designing things and he gets paid to do it because he is very good at it. It makes him happy. How amazing is that.

Then one day the thing he designed is shown to a group of people who love the products the company makes, and they love it! The next day though, the employee is told by his boss that he has to design something else. It isn’t really what he is good at designing but he does it, because it’s his job and he takes pride in what he does. The thing gets shown to that same group of people and they hate it. “It’s ugly they cry, we like the old one! Bring it back, fire the designer!”

The designer was just doing what he was told, but now the job he loves has become a strain, it’s stressing him out because now he has to keep designing ugly things because he’s been told to, and if he doesn’t, they’ll just get somebody else to do it. His job is suddenly on the line and the harder he tries to design the best version of the horrible thing his boss has asked him to design, the harder it becomes and the more negativity he receives.

I think the life of a rugby player can be much the same. Take Bjorn Basson for example. He burst onto the scene as a try scoring dynamo at the Cheetahs. I once watched him score four tries in a losing effort against the Sharks and he made it look effortless. He even became a Springbok. Then the lure of money and big city lights took him to Pretoria and The Bulls. He was told, “listen Bjorn, Morne is going to kick the ball high in the air. You have to run after it and get it back for us”.

I’m sure he must have asked questions like, “but I score lots of tries, why not just give me the ball in some space and let me do that instead?”

They didn’t.

Nevertheless, he worked very hard at becoming the best exponent of kick chasing in the modern game, because he loves the game, but what happened to the try scoring dynamo we all know and love?

A key to managing people is to encourage them to play to their strengths, I believe anyway. One of my bosses once told me I was a square peg in a round hole, and he was probably right. Right now I see too many players in South African rugby who are square pegs in round holes, performing roles that they aren’t suited to because they’re told to or because of “the game-plan” and as a result their natural ability, that thing that made them so good in the first place, is wasted, much like our designer friend I mentioned earlier. Occasionally they get it right, as with Willie Le Roux but that is more the exception than the rule, because most often the flair is replaced by over-coached paint by numbers play, bash the ball up, kick it in the air, chase it, wash, rinse repeat. Eventually the players forget how to see gaps, and run into the guy on either side of the gap instead. Rugby becomes dull, players become nothing more than robots in an effectively designed but ultimately flawed unit.

In New Zealand and Australia individuals with talent are celebrated and encouraged to express it on the field. We can learn a lot from them. They have the structure but keep the vision required to make the game, a game.

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