Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Over and out for McCaw


By RICHARD BOOCK, Sunday Star Times
Sunday, 20 April 2008

Decision-making. It hasn't been one of the All Blacks' greatest success stories, admittedly. Whatever you might think about the improvement in basic skills and athleticism, the same cannot be said of the top two inches. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, it seems the stronger they've become physically, the weaker they've become mentally.

They wouldn't be alone in this, of course. Whatever benefits sports science has brought to the New Zealand theatre of operations, it must be said that initiative is not one of them. Our cricketers run around cluelessly until re-programmed by computer-bearers. Our league players are transformed after statistical briefings. Hardly anyone seems to think on their feet any more. Carry on regardless.

The world cup review report only reinforced this. It wasn't the fact that a coach's message had to be sent out to Richie McCaw 10 minutes from the end of the quarter-final that should worry us. Nor even McCaw's decision to disregard the plea for a drop-goal and to keep pushing for a try or a penalty. That was his prerogative as captain, surely.

No, what was truly astonishing was the revelation that, at the time McCaw and his remaining deputies made their decision, they were apparently unaware that the All Blacks had not received the benefit of a penalty for the entire second half. For 70 minutes they'd been subjected to Wayne Barnes' incompetence and they still hadn't deduced he was the problem.

It's barely conceivable. The suggestion seems to be that no one tried to confront the highly impressionable and inexperienced referee; to pressure him about the penalty-count or to remind him of his responsibilities, because no one knew they were being shafted. The senior All Blacks didn't know what to do, because they didn't understand what was happening.

Why is this important? Well, there are ways and means of getting a message across to match officials. Shrewd leaders know how to make a point within earshot of referees, without necessarily speaking directly to them, or confronting them. Pressure can be built, the weight of logic brought to bear; minds concentrated.

The All Blacks lost because of weak leadership; that much now is clear. Even if McCaw had identified the problem, which he obviously didn't, it's doubtful he possessed the persuasive powers to influence Barnes. Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Sean Fitzpatrick, George Gregan, John Eales, Nick Farr-Jones; they were good captains for different reasons, but they all knew how to engage referees; manipulate them even.

The sad truth for McCaw is that he is only a brilliant openside flanker. Nothing more, nothing less. It isn't his fault; the poor blighter probably grew up thinking that would be enough. In hindsight, the decision to appoint him captain was a crucial mistake. That, however, is one conclusion the report steers well clear of.

Neither does it touch on the fact that, when reality bit in world cup sudden-death elimination (where McCaw invariably found himself first to the breakdown, last to get up, and accused of all kind of skulduggery in between) his clout as team spokesman was severely reduced. He was not so much the All Blacks captain, as a suspect in an investigation. The No7 shirt was, to him, kryptonite. He cannot remain as skipper.

Where have all our leaders gone? If you ask the Final Whistle, they are crushed under a blanket of minders, assistant coaches, amateur psychologists, computer analysts, agents, player association representatives, and self-acclaimed team leadership and peer assessment programmes. Initiative is being swamped by conformist protocol. Rebellion, so often the springboard to sporting success, is frowned upon.

The All Blacks adopted an elitist mantra along the lines of "better people make better players", and cobbled together their own leadership programme. It failed miserably. The fear now is that, rather than recognising that true leadership has many faces and cannot be found with a one-size-fits-all template, they will simply waste their time on another classroom model.

If that's their aim they might as well copy the New Zealand cricket team, who use the Leading Teams programme and can apparently report excellent harmony between squad members and a reduction in Chris Martin's smoking habit. But their batting is still a mess, they languish at No7 in the test rankings and struggle to win anything away from home.

On the other hand, if the All Blacks genuinely want to become a more successful rugby team, then their administrators might want to abandon the idea that good people have anything to do with good leadership. If anything, history insists the opposite. The best leaders are not only astute but also shrewd and crafty. They're resourceful and creative; experts at trouble-shooting and problem-solving, people who know their environment and can sniff an opportunity.

Good leaders may be dictatorial or arbitrary, they don't necessarily need to be the most popular or even likable. Which is where today's cloistered and manufactured team leadership programmes seem to go astray. You get the feeling that, if Winston Churchill had been in the Black Caps peer assessment programme, he would have been told to go away, take a long look at himself, and to cut out the cigar smoking.

The problem is that these leadership forums operate first and foremost on an equal playing field. Personalities are not allowed to dominate; everyone has a fair chance to speak their mind, and any hint of emotional intimidation is immediately quashed. Sounds great, but it doesn't relate at all to reality, where personalities do dominate, and where people who can persuade and incite often do hold sway.

Reality for the All Blacks arrived at Cardiff last year in the form of a rogue referee who simply needed to be challenged in the right way. As Dwight Eisenhower once said: "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it".

That's something you can't teach in a classroom.

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