These days it’s not enough for a coach of an international team to just have a practical vision. They need to pursue a wider theme – a sense of how they want their team to be characterised and remembered.
It’s a given that every coach wants to plant a flag at the summit of world rugby but it’s not enough to stomp up there and plonk it in the ground.
There’s a growing truth that many people won’t remember what a team actually did, but they will remember how that team made them feel.
Success is, therefore, no longer defined just by winning tests. The stakes have been raised on that front. Winning tests is essential to be considered successful, but the world needs something more at the moment.
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The best teams at the World Cup were driven by a set of values to which they had genuinely committed.
They were guided by a desire to represent something bigger than themselves and they held the view that they were accountable on and off the field.
Look at South Africa – they played with a cohesion and commitment which said they believed that in some way they could prove that a group drawn from disparate backgrounds could be successfully united to achieve a common goal.
The Boks wanted to be something more than a group of rugby players. They wanted to be some kind of vision for South Africa and that’s why everyone was moved by their victory. It was as much about who they were as it was what they did.
Japan played with a bravery rarely seen. They also had this conviction that hard work and total sacrifice was non-negotiable.
They tapped into something that had universal appeal.
And then there was the All Blacks who arguably saw their standing rise as a result of the way they reacted to defeat.
Their whole ethos was built on the strength of their character and they all bought into the idea that the real test comes in defeat.
Whatever impression the rest of the world had about the All Blacks before the semifinal, it would have changed afterwards.
To lose with dignity is a forgotten art in the modern world of pushy parents and representative teams for 10-year-on-year and what we saw during the coaching regime of Steve Hansen is that his All Blacks gave everything to rugby without letting rugby be their everything.
It’s a rare thing for an All Blacks team to fail at a World Cup yet engender so much pride and the importance of that goes beyond making everyone feel a little warm and fuzzy.
It matters to sponsors who feel they have a story that has been added to – that the legacy has not been dented.
It’s given more depth to the notion that being an All Black means something more than just being good at rugby and it has made it imperative that when the various candidates vying to replace Hansen make their respective pitches in the next few weeks, that they have a clear vision for the sort of value system they intend to impose.
How does the new coaching team plan to present the All Blacks to the world? Beyond results, how do they want their team to be judged and how does the new coach intend to ensure that his vision is applied?
A value system has to pervade into the way the team interacts with fans, with opponents, with media and with sponsors.
How do they want players to use social media? It’s not a sometimes thing, but an all of the time thing and any coach who can’t provide an in-depth sense of what they want can forget about getting the job.
New Zealand Rugby learned the hard way about rejecting the importance of a wider vision for the team when they didn’t reappoint Wayne Smith in 2001.
By all accounts, Smith, whose confidence wobbled two years into the role sparking a tender process, gave one of the great presentations when he tried to hold on to his post.
He sold a genuine high performance vision. One where the institutional booze culture was kicked out, where the players were expected to take greater responsibility for their conditioning and performance and where they understood their obligations to the jersey and the wider New Zealand community.
Smith missed out, though, and the job went to John Mitchell who was strong technically and tactically but without any vision at all for what sort of people he wanted his players to be.
According to former All Blacks captain Anton Oliver’s autobiography, the institutional drinking was out of control in Mitchell’s tenure and one of his overwhelming memories was turning up at Edinburgh Airport to fly to Buenos Aries in 2001 and seeing Ben Blair’s shoes speckled with vomit from the session the night before.
There was another defining moment when NZR had gathered sponsors in Christchurch ahead of the team heading to Australia for the 2003 World Cup.
As chief executive Chris Moller made his apologies to the assembled guests at the All Blacks resort base that Mitchell was unable to address them due to an important selection meeting, the coach could be clearly seen out running with other members of the management team.
As Moller said, it may have been that even had the All Blacks won the World Cup, that Mitchell may not have survived in the role.
In the 16 years since Mitchell was removed, the All Blacks have had that wider vision. They have been driven by something more important than just winning tests.
Graham Henry was first to coin the ‘better people make better All Blacks’ mantra and he made a quantum shift, helped by the once-rejected Smith and Hansen, to instil a value system that would at least, if nothing else, help players see that they were nothing special just because they were good at rugby.
There’s never going to be a perfect system that produces perfect people but for the last decade, if not longer, the All Blacks have certainly tried to embrace the idea of being something more than blokes who run around a field chasing a ball.
Whoever ends up being appointed to coach the All Blacks next year will have sold the best vision rather than laid out the best tactical blueprint.
They will have seen a future where the All Blacks can be winners when they win and winners when they lose.