On their road to victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, the Springboks modelled great leadership skills that are also useful reminders for good leadership in business.
As Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” South Africa won an epic quarterfinal clash against France 29-28 on October 15 2023 – already being spoken of as one of the best Test matches in rugby history – in front of nearly 80 000 predominantly French fans at the national stadium, Stade de France, north of Paris. South Africa had significantly less crowd support, less possession and less territory than Les Bleus, but still walked away with the win. To win, you first have to believe you can win.
2. Play as a team
Each person in a rugby team is there to do a job, and you need to work together to do it. There may be superstars in your team, but it’s also the background support that matters. There are players on the bench, doctors, physios, psychologists, coaches and marketing people who help the Springboks shine. It’s the full performance of the entire team that matters.
3. Be humble and say thank you
The first thing Siya Kolisi did in his post-match interview following the quarter-final match was to praise the opposition for their brilliant play. Then he thanked his own team, their families and the millions of South Africans who supported the Springboks. Thanking South Africans for the support and belief was the underpinning message of most of Kolisi’s interviews throughout the World Cup tournament.
4. Dream big
South Africa managed to beat the mighty All Blacks in the final, setting a record by winning their fourth Rugby World Cup title, following victories in 1995, 2007 and 2019. No team has ever done this before (New Zealand were fighting for the same record). The Springboks have taught us again and again to dream big. After all, if you don’t have dreams, they can never come true.
5. Strength in diversity
Coaching brains trust Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus built a World Cup Springbok team that was magnificently diverse in terms of skills, experience, age and specialisation, allowing impressive agility in team selection ahead of each match. This has made South Africa dangerously unpredictable to its opponents. They truly lived the Springbok motto of the time, “Stronger Together”.
6. Discipline and creativity are equally important
When playing at the top level of the game, small infringements can easily lead to penalties. South Africa’s discipline in the 2023 Rugby World Cup was excellent – for example, receiving only three yellow cards and no reds throughout the tournament (compared, for example, to New Zealand’s two red cards and five yellows).
At the same time, the Boks have been creative, surprising their opponents with team selections, for example, and announcing their teams early in the week for many matches in a row, then leaving the announcement to the last minute just before the quarterfinal, to keep the French guessing.
As Springbok assistant coach Deon Davids told SA Rugby magazine: “At this level, teams analyse each other to the bone, so you have to find ways to outsmart the opposition, while staying [true] to your core – the things that are important to you.
“That will stay part of our approach – to find that edge to doing something differently.”
7. The small things count
Cheslin Kolbe’s charge down of French fullback Thomas Ramos’s attempted conversion following France’s second try in the quarter-final was an athletic feat hardly ever seen in rugby. Kolbe needed to run about 20m in only a few seconds, and to get his arms up at the right angle to stop the ball as Ramos kicked it goalwards. Going into the match, Ramos was the leading points scorer in the tournament on 74, including 21 conversions. By thwarting the conversion with quick thinking and even quicker running, Kolbe saved two near-certain points, which could have made all the difference to the Boks, who won the match by only a point.
8. Be resilient
The Springboks modelled tenacity and resilience throughout the tournament, by never giving up, even when the odds seem insurmountable. By the end of the quarter-final match, Springbok centre Jesse Kriel was covered in blood, symbolising the physicality and toughness of the contest. Hooker Bongi Mbonambi, who was named the official player of the match, said in his post-match interview: “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy playing the host team in their backyard with a sold-out crowd singing their national anthem the whole time. We’ve still got two more games to go, this is still nothing. We were just focused on what we had to do and we stayed on task. It was a great game of rugby.”
9. You only have to win by one point
The Springboks kept their millions of fans’ hearts pumping in their final three matches of the tournament, beating France, then England in the semi-final and New Zealand in the final, by only one point each time. They did just enough each time to triumph, and were the hungrier, more resilient team, if only by a smidgeon, each time. They always believed in themselves and never gave up, delighting South African fans far and wide with their triumph.
Caption: Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa is tackled by Charles Ollivon of France during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 quarterfinal match between France and South Africa at Stade de France on 15 October 2023 in Paris, France. Photo credit: David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images