Creating proper environment as tricky as getting the game plan right

Sam Whitelock

There has been a surge in stories lately about who’s going to end up where in 2020 and not all of it has been about your columnist.

This time of the season is frenetic anyway, but in a World Cup year it becomes a superhighway of rumour and conjecture, as clubs and national unions bid to lock down their plans for 2020 and beyond. 

New Zealand is one of a number of countries to face a considerable upheaval after the World Cup, with Steve Hansen and a number of players heading for pastures new, most of them to Japan which ticks a lot of financial, cultural, and proximity-to-home boxes. 

The NZRU is prepped for this — as well as it can be, anyway — and this week tied down the Crusaders’ Sam Whitelock to a four-year contract. That will take him up to the next World Cup, in France, in 2023.

It’s a no-brainer. Whitelock’s a gem, a captain-in-waiting, and he will be at the core of the All Black strategy over the next few years. 

Keeping the best people always has one huge upside: it eliminates the need to be going elsewhere for costly replacements.

For all their clever recruiting, the best piece of business Saracens took care of in the last 12 months was tying Mark McCall down to a new deal.

It keeps him in north London until 2022 (or at least makes it very expensive for someone to buy him out of the club).

Leinster has done the same with Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster. I am thinking McCall is key to everything that happens at Saracens, from the boardroom to the pitch. 

One of the barbs that will always be thrown at a club with money is that it is easier to be successful.

Of course, that is true, but it is simplistic to think money is the key that unlocks all. 

Is it possible to be successful, in terms of trophies, without a hefty chequebook? Difficult.

Pat Lam would say differently, after what he achieved with Connacht and the PRO12 title, three years ago. 

That was a phenomenal strike against the head, though probably an outlier in modern-day terms.

McCall is not necessarily a media darling, hence his name doesn’t appear in headlines linking him with other clubs and countries, not like some coaches. 

My hunch is that he really enjoys the day-to-day job of being involved with a top club, especially one where he has access to a lot of premium playing talent. 

But don’t be fooled: anyone inside rugby wouldn’t be doing their jobs very well if he wasn’t close to the top of the list of targets for potential vacancies at the elite level.

Rob Baxter continues to do marvellous things off a limited budget at Exeter, where the individual superstar is less than the sum of all the other parts. 

But where Saracens are looking at another Heineken Cup final, next weekend, Exeter failed to emerge from the European pool. 

That is the difference, and one that puts Munster’s progress to so many Heineken semi-finals into perspective.

Saracens have access to greater wealth and resources than Exeter or Munster, but money doesn’t buy culture and won’t create the appropriate environment for any team. 

Peter Stringer was telling me once that Saracens use their largesse wisely when it comes to their biggest asset: the players.

They place a massive emphasis on really looking after the playing group, and that is a point of difference. 

Trips to the Munich beer festival, to Dubai: McCall sanctions this spend in a way that isn’t threatening their salary cap, but is still energising the squad.

Getting top quality players is one thing; gelling them is the real coaching challenge, which McCall has evidently mastered. 

Creating the right environment for players is as tricky as getting the game plan spot on.

I saw John Caulfield departed Cork City this week, after an historically successful period for the soccer club.

While I am not privy to any detail behind the reason, it’s hardly coincidental that the club’s fortunes dipped at the time when budgets tightened and quality players were leaving.

When a coach can continually produce results, despite shifting sands around and under him, that’s the special bit. 

That’s the trick. And all those achievements are facilitated by one word: environment.

Culture is less a noun than a verb. It’s your daily acts and habits, performing in a positive environment, which need to be worked on every day. 

That’s one of the Crusaders’ unique qualities.

They have people who drive the culture, who drive habits and positive behaviour every day, consistently. 

I can guarantee you that if these Crusaders players moved to a different environment, they wouldn’t enjoy the same success they are having here. 

That environment has been created over a long period of time, by a lot of quality people: McCaw, Carter, Read, Whitelock. 

It’s not something you would want to relinquish any time soon.

There was nothing like the same sense of culture, or consistency of behaviour, the same consistent high-performance achievement, at Racing 92 when I started there, in 2013. 

As a collective, we worked and worked on turning that around. There can be a spike when a new person comes in and goes hard at that area, but there will be a fall-off when people get fed up listening to the mantra. 

Now, you’ve got to maintain the same standard of environment via different means. It’s not anywhere as easy as it sounds. 

It's not that one creates the other. A good culture and a good environment are hand in hand in the workplace. 

And the coach who can create them is worth his or her weight in gold.

The Crusaders play the Sharks tonight and we are at Christchurch Airport tomorrow, at 5am, for a flight and 16 days in South Africa. 

Even reviewing games now, and what a player has to be good at, is so different from a coaching perspective than five years ago. It’s all changing all the time.

Gone are the days when everyone attacked off lineouts and scrums. 

Rugby is multi-dimensional. You need to be good at clearing out a wide ruck; the next action is dealing with a high ball; the next second, it’s a two-on-one coming hard at you; then it’s maybe putting a fella into space with a pass… The skillset is as wide as it is deep. 

And to progress those elements, you need Scott Robertsons and Mark McCalls greasing the wheels.

Is there still a place for throwing a rocket at a player? Yes, but maybe once or twice a season. 

Does it serve a purpose? After the Waratahs defeat, there was no throwing any barbs at the players, because we didn’t get our game plan across in advance. 

We tried to play summer rugby in the spills of rain.

The message wasn’t clear for the players. We, as coaches, take that on the chin. 

But you are also looking for character in the guy. I look at Saracens and Leinster and I see plenty who will put their hand up.

They don’t see defeat often, but, once in a while, it can be enlightening. 

You learn a lot about people in defeat.

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