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Playing to win: Leadership lessons from the women's rugby team

Kate Cooper and Sue Weekes

The women’s rugby team had amazing success at the World Cup last year, emerging victorious as the World Champions. As the men’s rugby World Cup starts this month, Kate Cooper asks what the men can learn from the women in order to follow in their footsteps and take home the trophy – and if there are any lessons for business in there too. Additional reporting Sue Weekes

Much like any England football team that has followed in the footsteps of the 1966 world cup winning side, the England rugby team knows that it embarks on its world cup campaign in September in the shadow of a legendary past winner. In this instance it is, of course, Sir Clive Woodward’s 2003 world cup team, whose star line-up included Jonny Wilkinson who famously kicked the dramatic last-minute winning drop goal in the final against Australia. This isn’t the only team performance the 2015 men’s squad has to equal though. In a thrilling world cup final in the Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris last August, the England women’s team, then coached by Gary Street, beat Canada 21-9 to bring the trophy back to Twickenham for the first time since 1994.

While there were plenty of individual stellar performances by the likes of Emily Scarratt, the tournament’s top scorer, captain Katy McLean and flanker Maggie Alphonsi, in the eyes of the aspiring players who were watching it was a gutsy, overall team effort that led the girls to victory. “In the end it was the way they came together as a team and the belief they had in themselves,” said one of the girls who has played in the England under-20 side: “It was one team, one dream. When you step on to the park, individual skills are just a fraction of being part of the team. England just kept building as a team in the run-up to the tournament and then driving forward as one team.” The team spirit was symbolised at the end when everyone involved in the final, including coaches, substitutes, physios including injured Fran Matthews who climbed over the barrier to join her team mates, one of whom was her sister, Alex, all ran on to the pitch and formed a “massive huddle”.

The girls also praised the team’s work ethic. One training camp attendee said the atmosphere and feeling generated was highly motivational. “Off the pitch they were laughing and joking but the minute they stepped over the white line the work rate was really high,” she says.

Rugby on the rise

The win has helped put the women’s game well and truly in its ascendency. According to the Rugby Football Union (RFU), more than 18,000 women and girls play rugby regularly in England and, as part of its strategy to grow the sport, it is aiming to take the game to 100,000 women across the country. This year also sees the introduction of the first professional contracts for the women’s game.

As those already involved in the game will tell you, it isn’t a sport that girls enter into half-heartedly and to many it is the physicality of the sport that has great appeal. “I was pushed into netball or hockey and I think there is a feeling that rugby is too aggressive for girls at school,” said another England under 20. “But when you go into a tackle, it’s about the camaraderie. In training you build a bond unlike you do in other sports.” Certainly the physical side seems to accelerate the bonding process and another team mate puts this down to “putting your body on the line” for your colleagues on the pitch. “I don’t think you can understand true friendship or team spirit until you are standing next to someone and know that you’ve got to batter your bodies for another 20 minutes. All my best friends are rugby players,” she says.

Indeed it is the friendship and team spirit that many of the girls highlight as the best part of playing women’s rugby. Currently, the female game comprises a close-knit community with 250 senior and university teams affiliated to the RFU. Many counties now have senior teams. There is also the RFU Women’s Divisional Programme, part of its Women’s Rugby Player Pathway, which gives regional players a potential route to playing for their country if they are good enough. In addition to this, the RFU website provides information on a range of playing, coaching and refereeing opportunities for those under 12 and up to 18 years. Former AASE Coach and England World Cup finalist, Danielle ‘Nolli’ Waterman has inspired a whole generation of girls and was described as a ‘consistently wicked player’ by teammates.

Team work

Despite being at an embryonic stage though, there are perhaps some messages coming from the women’s game that male rugby players would do well to listen to. Many of the girls view the men’s game and the national team as having more of an emphasis on individual stars than the overall team. And if able to give advice to their male counterparts they would urge them to remember why they played the game in the first place, which for women is for enjoyment, teamwork and friendship. Many also believed one of the key motivational drivers for the women’s world cup side was the sacrifices they had made along the way for the team and their mission. Like male rugby players they have to spend long periods away from their families and train hard but because of the amateur status of the game, many also had to give up their jobs and make far bigger lifestyle changes to prepare for the tournament. “The most inspirational thing about the win for me was that for some of these women rugby is a hobby. They don’t get paid for it but they still believed they could be the best and proved themselves to be world class,” said one of the girls. “My advice to the men is to remember why they are playing. For women, the motivation was solely to win and win for each other and this goes back to the basics on the training field.”

It isn’t just the men’s rugby team that can learn from the women’s game though. It also has some key messages for the world of business when it comes to leadership and management. The women’s world cup team was a textbook example of a cohesive team, united behind the mission and as a sport as a whole it demonstrates the importance of inclusivity and diversity. Many of the girls spoke about how there is a position in the team “for everyone”, no matter your background or size or shape. “There are coaches helping you to acquire the skills you need and there is an acceptance of body shape and size,” she says. “I’ve known rugby transform girls’ lives; girls who didn’t consider themselves to be sporty find a sport they can excel at.”

The diversity that exists in the female game helps teach girls the importance of tolerance and respect for others. One player commented that because it is a relatively unusual sport for girls, it attracts a mixture of people. “It teaches you to co-operate with people you might not necessarily think you would get on with,” commented another, adding that it also helped to build confidence. “I was shy at speaking to people but I’ll pretty much talk to anyone now. It’s helped me to become comfortable in situations I wouldn’t normally fit in.” Another talked about how her time-management and organisational skills had improved because of the discipline the game instilled.

Inspiring stars

The players interviewed were all elite, relatively young, and had been playing since they were girls and have been an important part of the growing women’s game. Their insights into leadership should certainly be of interest to the 2015 squad. Most impressive are those who lead by their actions rather than talk. Stand-out leaders on the playing field cited by the girls include the New Zealand women’s Sevens player, Sarah Goss, described by them as one of the hardest working people ever on the pitch. “She never gives up and embeds that in her team,” said one of the girls. Another is Sonia Green, the Saracens player whose enthusiasm and attitude breeds in the team. “She also does the hard graft,” said one of her admirers. “She not only told but showed us.” Another cited a male coach whose skill was simplifying the game for the group of young male players. “He explained how it didn’t need to be complex but told them to go out and enjoy themselves and work hard for your team mates,” she says. “Every time I go into a game I think of those words.”

While good individual captains and leaders were highlighted by the girls, one player commented that everyone on the field of play has to exercise some form of leadership skills because the complexity of the game is such that each time they have the ball they have to make an important decision. “This translates well to making key decisions in life,” she says, while a colleague talked about the collective responsibility she feels: “It never feels like a team of individuals. If we make a mistake we make it as a team. There is no individual good or bad performance.”

The qualities of the game that women hold dear are the opportunity to be part of a team, the inclusivity it offers, satisfaction and fulfilment as well as friendship, networking opportunities and the social side. In some ways, it represents a microcosm of the perfect workplace and, as the women’s world cup team has amply demonstrated, these characteristics can also deliver performance at the highest level. As the sport grows and becomes more professional with the advent of the first contracts for women players, it will be interesting to note whether the game holds on to these attributes. In the meantime, all eyes will be on the men this September to see if their leadership on and off the pitch can make it a double for England.

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