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Australia's Super Rugby culture conundrum

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Roar Rookie
12th March, 2019
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3110 Reads

Who would want to be a Super Rugby coach?

In a world of competing club and international priorities, cash strapped clubs are all desperate for success. Club coaches are under constant pressure to perform and those who aren’t are often lambasted by the fans and ousted by the administration.

Mix in the pressure from national bodies to rest key players to ensure that they are in top physical condition for the upcoming Rugby World Cup and it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

With this pressure comes the win-now attitude. Results are expected immediately by fans and club boards alike, which raises an important question: is it better to win now but not for long or to win later and enjoy a sustained period of success? The obvious answer is to go for a sustained period of success, but today’s sporting environment rarely allows the time needed to lay the foundations for sustained success.

Too much is made of individual players in team games such as rugby and not enough of the overall cohesion and culture of a team.

While culture has been somewhat of a buzzword of late for Super Rugby, not many have really delved into what it actually means and what it takes to truly develop a winning culture.

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For the purpose of this article I will divide culture into two categories:

  1. player culture; and
  2. club Culture

The reason I have divided culture into these two categories is that one can create short-term success while the other is geared towards the desired long-term success that every team craves.

Player culture
A perfect example of a team based around player culture was the Queensland Reds in 2011 when they were winners of the Super Rugby title. Having not reached the finals since 2001 and finishing fifth in 2010 the Reds surged to a historic victory in 2011 that was a sight to behold. It seemed that it all came together that year – Quade Cooper and Will Genia were electric, Digby Ioane was powerful and Scott Higginbotham and captain James Horwill led the forwards from the front.

Under the watchful eye of Ewen McKenzie the team had grown a player-led cultural revolution that created the belief needed to push this underperforming team to the pinnacle of southern hemisphere club rugby. But it did not last for long.

From there began the slide back into mediocrity. In 2012 the Reds finished third, followed by a fifth-place finish in 2013. By 2015 they had slid all the way back to 15th, marking a definite low point for the club.

This is the issue with player culture – it relies on the players, usually a certain group of players, in a team that have the belief and skill to uplift those around them, to push the entire team to the pinnacle of performance.

This type of culture never lasts for long. Players get injured, retire or leave for more money, ripping the belief out of the team. The coach then has to start all over again, usually leading to a marked decline in performance while they rebuild, and usually a fired coach.

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Quade Cooper in his days playing for the Reds (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Club culture
In contrast the perfect example of a team that has built a club culture is the Crusaders (no prizes for guessing that one). The Crusaders have built a culture that is not purely based on players; it is soaked into the dressing room walls, the Christchurch dirt and the red-and-black jersey.

This type of culture hangs over a club like a shadow, always lurking in the minds of its players, always saying that there is something bigger at stake and that, like those that have gone before, you can push yourself beyond what you know you are capable of. Whichever player comes into the club immediately feels their belief grow as well as the weight of responsibility on your their shoulders.

It is the belief that they can perform and dominate as well as the responsibility and humility to know that they have to work hard at every turn to do justice to the history of the club.

In the Crusaders inaugural year in the Super 12 they won just two of their 11 matches. They were not the winning club that has since dominated Super Rugby. Former captain and coach Todd Blackadder spoke about how they leveraged that first year to start to build a culture.

“The disappointment of that season has served the Crusaders well in the long term, both for the players involved and the generation that have followed,” he said. “It was very tough to deal with at the time because our failure wasn’t through any lack of trying – if anything, we were probably all trying too hard; but the scars of that experience went deep, and have become engrained in the whole franchise establishment.”

This was the seed from which the entire Crusaders culture was born. The club and players made no excuses; they used this to develop a clear set of values and priorities for the club that was embraced by players and has since led to the Crusaders to become Super Rugby Champions nine times, runners up four times and make at least make the play-offs a further five times.

This is what happens when a club culture is properly created. Players, coaches and administration staff may leave but the values instilled in the club remain. This creates an aura bigger than any one person and drives success in an organisation over the long term.

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Sam Whitelock

Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

Player culture can be turned into club culture, as the Brumbies did in the early 2000s when a ragtag group of New South Wales and Queensland rejects formed into a championship-winning side and one of Australia’s top-performing sides for years to come despite lacking superstar power.

The Rebels are also a side that is now building a very strong culture in Melbourne, somewhat akin to the Brumbies culture of the 2000s. Players from other states have all congregated in Melbourne and are pulling together as a team to really push each other, but they are still a number of years away from really creating a club culture that can survive the coach and headline players leaving.

The Waratahs have a strong and proud rugby history and have always had the players to make a meaningful impact but, like the Reds, have only tasted limited success mixed with underwhelming performances and inconsistency. Really the key to a meaningful and long-lasting club culture still evades them.

The Reds are probably the most interesting case in Australia when you are looking for an example of a team really striving to create a club culture. After the dismal performances of recent years they enlisted Brad Thorn as head coach, and if anyone that knows about what it takes to build a good culture, it is him.

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Brad has clearly been able to convince Reds powerbrokers that he is aiming for long-term success for the club, not just short-term gain like in 2011. He had made a number of very tough calls in his short tenure but the message is clear – no-one is bigger than the club, nothing can replace the value of hard work, believe in one another and make no excuses.

Brad is aiming to build the club from the ground up with a group of young players who have an enormous amount of potential. This will not pay off in the next year but the expectation will now be that, come 2020, his players will know exactly what the Reds culture means and how they can each contribute to the club’s long-term success.

If the Reds end up being a force in the years to come, it will be because of their work now, just like how the Crusaders used their initial season as motivation and not an excuse.

A lot is said about culture these days and everyone has their own opinions, but in the end only one thing is for sure for Australia’s Super Rugby franchises: for long-term success club culture is king.