Championship Preview: Living and learning with New Zealand’s rugby winners

On a recent trip to New Zealand former Cork player Conor McCarthy got up close with some of the country’s best rugby players and coaches. So how does the GAA compare...?

Whenever the opportunity arises to get an insight into another sport, there are certain questions GAA people generally tend to ask.

Do they do anything different from us?

How long would they train for?

Can they rest more during the day than we can?

Meaningful comparisons are often very difficult. Are they fitter? It’s not really a relevant question when comparing sports with different requirements. However, there is the opportunity to make meaningful comparisons in other areas such as scheduling, player monitoring, communications, use of technology, video analysis. As a player, there’s always a fascination with such matters but having recently undertaken a Masters in applied psychology and business coaching in UCC, an insight into how things are done at an elite level in other sports took on a new attraction. On this basis, the aforementioned questions were to the forefront of my mind when I visited New Zealand earlier this year. Lucky enough to get access to top rugby teams and coaches, it was necessary to have the objectives and questions primed if any meaningful insight was to be gained. Basically, can we do things better?

The Crusaders of Canterbury are the world’s most successful rugby team. In 18 years of Super Rugby the Crusaders have won seven titles, been finalists 11 times and semi-finalists in 15 of the past 16 years. They are out on their own and are commonly seen as the primary generator for the All Blacks machine. Their player and coaching heritage is beyond rich; Vance Stewart, Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans, Todd Blackadder and currently Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read. Think Kilkenny hurling and Kerry football wrapped up in one franchise. Yes they had process maps, yes they had Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). They even had drone cams but for the purposes of brevity, the most discernible feature of The Crusaders camp was in fact The Culture.

At The Crusaders, they believed in the importance of culture and they saw it as ‘their first competitor’. It was the one thing they could grow and enrich in meaningful ways that was 100% within their control and their budget, when tackled cleverly. These cultural ideals, established at the Crusaders over the past 18 years, have been adopted by the All Blacks and were seen a key contributor to their World Cup success in 2011. Of course, culture is an easy word to bandy about. Anyone who works in large organisations or has studied business will have heard of the ‘utmost importance of culture’. Often confused with morale, do these groups or organisations ever really address it outside of token gestures such as a team-building day here and or a night out there? At the Crusaders, it was orchestrated from the top down, but generated from the bottom up. It was the players who were charged with growing and enriching it. They were the guys who were on the field who had to make the decisions. They had to own it.

This culture pervaded everything they did. For example, one of the first activities in the weekly calendar was a 45-minute ‘culture session’. The players were required to drive it. In this way, the players acknowledged the issues and came up with the answers themselves. The management saw themselves as facilitators, not directors. They merely posed the questions. What does a good culture look like? The players decided that it involves everyone parking their own agendas and their egos for the sake of the collective. How can we grow and enrich our culture? The players decided that simple things, like greeting everyone in the morning, shaking their hand to show that you acknowledge them and their contribution. Or by being vulnerable enough to walk up to a new member of the squad and take him for a coffee rather than leaving him to integrate on his own. What does poor culture look like? The players offered examples such as cliques forming, not recognising constructive criticism, a negative attitude when not selected. Certainly, these appeared to be the very issues every sports team faces. Universally agreed standards rather than black and white rules. There was no charter.

They players were treated as adults and by pushing the responsibility onto the group, the standards were agreed, expectations were set. The ‘energy suckers’ were proactively dealt with. The management kept the meeting on point and it cost nothing only time. Coming out of one of these sessions, you’d wonder why this box isn’t ticked in every sporting set-up. The danger, of course, is that it can lead to a bitching session but when properly facilitated, the common sense approach and collective goodwill it generates enabled everyone in the set-up to get on the one page very fast.

Togetherness was probably the one word that summed up their culture. It wasn’t just a word. When the squad did a pre-season conditioning run up the unforgiving Rapaki Hill outside Christchurch, management was encouraged to take part. Once everyone was three-quarters of the way up the hill, they regrouped and everyone did the last bit together in 20 second bursts, i.e. 20 second burst followed by 20 second rest. In this way, everyone worked hard relative to their ability but most importantly everyone finished together. At the summit, everyone shook hands once more.

On further investigation of the culture at the Crusaders, it was explained to me by one member of management that “high performance culture is talked about a lot in sport and in the workplace, but we try to live it a bit more here”. This mindset of high performance influences the way the players lead their lives not just at training but in the 140 or so hours in the week where they are away from the monitored and supported environment of their training base. It becomes part of how the backroom team approach their job and creates a shared sense of responsibility where everyone becomes aware of what the standards are and what is expected. How this mindset is embedded is most interesting. One of the main tools is, in fact, story-telling. James Kerr had described this concept in his book on the All Blacks. At the Crusaders, it was evidenced to be an extremely potent tool in their high performance culture.

Each year at a senior level, a key theme or story is rolled out for the season. It is generally taken from history and the parallels are drawn between that story and the challenges that lie ahead. In this way, the story has to have clear similarities for the team at that stage of their evolution and has to evoke a passionate response. In short, the challenge for the season is re-framed in a way in which the players can identify with in a more meaningful way. It captures their hearts and minds.

An example: Burn The Boats. In 2009 the squad was endeavouring to win the ITM championship for the second time in a row. The theme employed was the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, one of the most significant events in history. The story was conveyed and the parallels were drawn. The Spanish conquistadors left behind lives of achievement and luxury in Spain in search of uncharted territories, a difficult and fraught process. On landing in Central America, the conquistadors removed choice from the equation. They proceeded to burn their boats. The symbolism was clear - there was only one option, to move forward with meaning, to be victorious. It permeated through their environment. An enormous canvass print went up on the dressing room wall illustrating the scene of the boats being burned. At the bottom of the print, hundreds of pictures made up a collage of photos which had been provided by the players, personal photos which had meaning to the players, e.g. pictures of them together or with families and friends. The background of the print featured lists of results and names of former players who had helped to create the legend. The five key values in this team were printed in large bold at the bottom of the print, Attitude, Enjoyment, Responsibility, Commitment, Rugby.

At the beginning of the season, each player was asked to build a small replica boat in their own time and then burn it. Once they had burned their boat, they were asked to text in signifying their commitment to the cause. Fun was encouraged. A “Wild Day” was organised for the squad wherein teams of six, made up of a cross-section of the players and back room team each took a boat up the Avon River in Christchurch in a race. Apparently, the mantras carried like an echo through that campaign; In the gym the shout would be “It’s about attitude boys”; In the dressing room before games, “we’ve burned the fuckin boats boys”. Far from token gestures, this was a commitment to getting the culture right, first and foremost.

Once again, the ITM cup was annexed in 2009 and in the four following years, each with a new theme, Joe Schmidt reportedly used a similar concept when he got the UCD historian Diarmuid Ferriter in to speak to the Irish squad, paralleling our country’s history as a smaller nation with a resilient legacy against larger more powerful nations we would ultimately push back.

One of the other key themes which resonated most at the Crusaders and which every GAA person can identify with was “feeding the fire”. The fire is the collective ambition burning within the set-up. They acknowledge that sometimes various bits of fire wood (players) might get damp (lose form, attitude) but that these bits of wood can be warmed and dried out by the central blaze so that they get brought back into the burning process. However, rotten wood (bad attitude players) are seen as different. This is seen as being of no use to them and the message is clear - rotten wood, no matter how talented, never changes. It must be thrown out or it will dampen the collective fire. This need to be ruthless went hand-in-hand with the conviction that character always trumps talent.

Some may see this as non-transferrable to a GAA scenario whereby participation should not really be restricted. However, in a later visit to High Performance Sport New Zealand in Auckland, one of the senior coaches, Graeme Robson reinforced the message. “I have often times come across the phenomenon of the talented athlete who just doesn’t work hard enough or the bad apple in the group. In 25 years of coaching, never have I seen any coach able to change these personalities. On this basis, the coach’s prerogative has to be to work with the athlete who is willing, the one with character. The results always bear this out.”

Robson and his coaches actually worked to a model encompassing this notion with all of their teams. Firstly, the vision for any given team has to be clarified. The values and beliefs surrounding that team are then unilaterally agreed. In essence, this is the culture of the group. Only then were structures and strategies put in place to underpin this culture. If a player was late for training or went out for a few drinks, then these were considered to be isolated events which there must have been good reasons for. The player was given the benefit of the doubt. If a pattern of events emerged, then a conversation was required and either the player was ejected or it was the culture and structures that required review at a high level. Robson explained that, in his experience, it was ironic that it was in the other areas - the ‘events’ - managers and coaches tended to waste their time. Robson and High Performance Sport New Zealand would argue that it is up the chain where most return will be gained. Thereafter, events became less frequent.

Humility was seen as one of the most cherished values at

the Crusaders. This is clearly stated on the club’s website: “The team is more highly valued than any individual”. An easy soundbite for any website, corporate or sporting. But again, these words are ‘lived out’ at the Crusaders training base. The current squad have two former IRB players of the year, Kieran Read and Richie McCaw, as well as other high profile All Blacks in Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Colin Slade. However, there are no differences drawn between any of these stellar names and the rest of the squad. Indeed, it’s the star turns who appeared to appreciate this more than anyone else. To observe them in this environment was to see men at ease. While these All Blacks players were to return to the squad two weeks later than the rest of the players for the 2015 season, their presence at training a week early and the voluntary gut-wrenching conditioning work they were doing adjacent to the first team squad was symbolic of the unity of effort and pursuit of excellence that was engendered in this squad.

Reciprocal learning was highly valued. Guest coaches from other sports were regularly invited to visit in the hope and expectation that parallels could be drawn. For example, when they learned that I had played Gaelic football, they were very anxious to learn more about the overhead catch. They had seen the ‘Irish guys’ do this. It was felt that this skill was one area they were possibly deficient in, relative to the northern hemisphere teams.

Following several conversations on this skill, I was asked to undertake a 15-minute segment with their academy. When I explained that I wasn’t exactly an expert in this skill myself, it was explained to me that even if these young guys didn’t get a whole lot out of the training segment, their belief was that such segments started a conversation and engaged the players in thinking more about the skill in this regard. Afterwards, each of the players shook my hand and thanked me. This was one of the standards they had developed themselves for all external speakers in line with growing and enriching their academy culture.

In contemplation of this elusive culture of togetherness and shared values, it was apparent the unity and the collective will they were chasing is already present in many GAA teams, waiting to be harnessed. All GAA players will already have that affinity and that undying loyalty to their team. We are actually starting from a higher affinity base. After all, it is a part of what we are. Maybe, the connection is not always fully developed and sometimes, the slavish element is prioritised that bit too much.

If culture was described as the Crusaders’ primary tenet, then strategy was seen as the other side of the same high performance coin. Interestingly, the players were again encouraged to take charge of their own environment as much as possible. ‘Peer-led coaching’ is encouraged as vital. This takes the form of each player providing feedback to a team-mate. After all, you will know your team-mate’s weaknesses better than any opponent ever will. Anything left unsaid is perceived as a lost opportunity for learning. Even if the feedback is not correct, offence is not to be taken. It is seen as coming from a good place and at least it starts a conversation. Conversations are seen as vitally important. In fact, the coffee shop across the road from the training base is where most of these conversations take place. The players are encouraged to think about their game and often times a player and a coach or a group of players will go for a coffee and discuss a particular tactic or style of play. Any resultant feedback is filtered through management where the challenge process vets the idea. If accepted, it is the player who will present it back to the group for integration into the game-plan. The tactical principles will then be brought together by the coaches in an umbrella approach but it is the players who will have developed most of them. Just like the culture, the players had to own the strategy.

In a subsequent visit to Auckland and The Blues Super 15 rugby franchise, it became apparent that there was a consistency of approach in regards to rugby coaching and preparation in the country. For example, ball skill is integrated into everything they do - even the gym sessions at times. A superset might involve a bench press, clap press-ups and then five passes off either side in the grass area the gyms opened onto. Experience in GAA would commonly suggest that you start with the running and the ball comes after. In New Zealand, they started with the ball and if the GPS told them they needed to up it at the end of the week, then so be. It could just as easily inform them they’d enough done by Friday morning.

The benefits are that the ball is handled as often as possible in tandem with load management, not just information gathering. Much like Jose Mourinho’s recent comments about the futility of identifying that one player runs 10kms in a game versus another player running 7 kms without considering whether all of these kms were effective.

Conditioned games were seen as superior to drills, which are artificial by nature. A conditioned game might be run once at walking pace, repeated again at walking pace but then they would be run again at max pace. Loads of mistakes were made but that was welcomed and seen as vital to the learning process. During the integration of any new skill or tactic (The Learning Phase), Passionate Mistakes are differentiated and treated differently to Ordinary Mistakes, so that the skill/tactic would be executed so much better during the game (The Performance Phase).

Bruce Blair, the man in charge of High Performance Rugby Coaching in New Zealand, explained that their philosophy is that training has to be harder than matches. He also clarified an approach with regard to a key skill which a player or athlete might be very good at - i.e. as soon as a skill is stable, the environment has to be disrupted. So if a player was comfortable with, say, the offload, he would have to do this with two players hanging off him. This was summed up in the mantra: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable”.

In Auckland, Isa Nacewa - soon to return to Leinster - is the performance coach for The Blues. Much like at the Crusaders, Nacewa’s primary job was to get the players to take charge of their environment, rather than operate as passive athletes. This was required before one ever gets into more advanced psychological tools such as visualisation or triggers. The challenge in terms of sports psychology was to get the players to engage and contribute into the overall process, and more importantly, the performance. This resonated as being very practical and probably one of the key areas of difference between these professional bodies and the amateur sports psychology sessions which can be rolled out as the “cure-all” for the GAA season veering off track. It’s easy to get everyone into a room for a purge session, to tell each other how much winning means to them and their family but does that integrate into performance? Eliciting from the players more tangible and measurable outcomes, where they are responsible for implementation, appeared to be of far greater impact than the roll out of ad-hoc tools or inspirational stories.

For example, if the players fed back they were not getting enough from the video analysis, then action would be taken. The players were all educated in the use of the software and taught how to review and compile clips themselves, rather than have them sent to them on their phone. In this way, the players are encouraged to lead the post-game review and bring their own clip to the discussion. This reinforces the concept of the player taking charge of his own environment and leading on the field.

On one of the days in Auckland, Nacewa ran an A versus B game and it wasn’t let flow by any means. Replica games are never going to be as intense as Championship ones if they are left to meander through 35 mins with one team dominating. It was all seven-minute bursts. If the A’s were camped on the B’s line for five or six minutes, the whistle would sound and Nacewa would drag the attacking team back to defend off their five-metre line.

In terms of specific game day mental skills thereafter, one of the big challenges was to ‘liberate the gremlins’. Every player has them. Call them worries, conscious or otherwise. When you’re not feeling strong enough, they creep in and affect performance. Every GAA player on this side of the world has at one stage or another been told to focus exclusively on the positive and to block out the negative. The evidence-based approach employed in New Zealand was different. More realistic. It felt reassuring to know that dwelling exclusively on the positive can leave you underprepared when the setbacks inevitably occur. Acknowledging the potential for hiccups, constructively planning for any number of scenarios and maintaining a ‘blue head’ if and when they occur was the approach taken by Gazing Performance, the mental skills provider to the All Blacks in the 2011 World Cup.

In Auckland, the sense that The Blues had been a sleeping giant of Super Rugby was palpable. Their backroom team were conscious that they needed to generate support from the community. When they had an A versus B game, it was noticeable the general public was invited to attend. There was no consideration given to sporting espionage, especially so early in the season. Their forward-thinking high performance manager, Tony Hanks, explained to me that there are often other priorities which can be important, like endeavouring to get the people of Auckland to re-engage with this former giant and help rouse it from its slumber.

Overall, cross-pollination between sports is seen as a good thing. Confirmation bias appears to be more prevalent here at present - whereby the team that wins the All-Ireland gets copycatted in all they say and do. The trainer involved in that team has all the answers. But does anyone have all the answers? We do an awful lot right. The standard and prevalence of GAA throughout this country is undeniable but perhaps the best thing we can do is look above the parapet and try to just get that bit better.

Follow Conor on Twitter @ConorMcCarthy

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