Rugby Union: Secret legacy of Kitch Christie

EXCLUSIVE: Revealed - the strategy behind South Africa's greatest rugby achievement by its architect
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The Independent Online
WHEN SOUTH AFRICA won the World Cup in 1995, many contributed to their triumph but a triumvirate stood out: there was the inspirational presence of the country's president, Nelson Mandela, in a Springboks jersey, the leadership of the captain, Francois Pienaar, and the astute coaching of Kitch Christie. As Pienaar says in his autobiography, Rainbow Warrior, his relationship with Christie was so close it was more like father-son than coach-captain. "He was the type of strong, disciplined, brave man that I most admired. Since 1993 we had grown together. Time and again I felt the benefit of his support and advice. I knew he supported me, I knew he cared for me. He never let me down. This had been the character of our relationship. I would listen to his advice, I would implement his game-plan." Before the match against England at Twickenham four years ago, Christie, who had been fighting cancer since 1979, joined the team huddle and stood between Pienaar and James Dalton. "The usual end to such a Springboks huddle is for the players to squeeze each other and shout 'Bokke'," said Pienaar. "James and I squeezed the coach and discovered later we'd fractured two of his ribs. He never said a word." Before coaching South Africa, Christie, educated in Scotland and the son of a stove- builder, had been to Transvaal what Graham Henry had been to Auckland. Before his death in 1998 Christie, in this hitherto unpublished thesis, explained the philosophy behind South Africa's success and what separates the good from the great.

I HAD the good fortune to coach two world-class teams: the World Cup- winning Springboks and the Transvaal side of 1993-94. Teams such as these are extremely rare. They are tough to find and even tougher to build. But they exist. They can be built and they can be led. Anyone who has seen one in action will know it.

I think of the Australian rugby league team, the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s, the All Blacks of 1965-69, the 1974 British Lions and the Wigan rugby league team. Each was immensely successful but that alone didn't make them world-class. Many other successful teams do not pass the test. They lack something - some special quality of effortlessness and coherence. There is an art to team management and it is where most coaches fail dismally, even though they have great rugby knowledge.

World-class teams can be recognised from the outside by a lack of mistakes, an ease of performance and a joy in going about their business. But what is it about them internally that enables them to perform so well? The first characteristic is vision. Teams must have something to believe in, something to achieve, but few have real vision. Visions must excite, engage and frighten. They must be big. The one worrying factor about the Springboks is that we only seem to produce our best against the better teams, not like New Zealand, who have the killer instinct. The 1995 South Africa World Cup team were asked to go to hell and back and responded like true professionals. There has to be a reason for asking. It must be so big that even the most confident team member cannot feel sure of achieving it; so big that even the most cynical cannot shoot it down.

Over a period of time the struggle to achieve the unachievable becomes a rational goal. However, most of us still need a reason for getting up in the morning. True visions have an external dimension. For the Springboks, in 1995 our vision was the World Cup, and more significantly what it stood for: to be the best in the world. Failing that tradition is the negative vision that haunts all Springbok players and coaches. The world-class teams I coached had a vision of pushing back the boundaries of the game. The opposition was no longer the other teams we played, but ourselves and the game itself.

The second characteristic that distinguishes the great is ability. World- class teams will not be produced without a fair number of world-class players. Ability is important, but it is just as important for members of the team to complement each other. Forwards are learning to run and pass like backs, backs are getting bigger and learning to push and jump like forwards. Modern backs must win possession like a loose forward. The Lions of the 1970s and their brand of "total rugby" introduced the world to the idea that all the players should possess all the skills. Now every successful team has players in all positions who are catchers, runners, passers, tacklers and who have real pace.

A third characteristic is "superior discontent". World-class teams are highly analytical and self-critical. They feel there is always more that could have been done. The best teams I coached were for ever searching for the tiniest possible improvement. We knew that to win the World Cup we had to take the high road. We believed absolutely that we had to improve with every match. A poor performance was a precious missed opportunity that would never come again - one of only five matches before the final in which every minute gave us a chance to improve.

We took an enormous gamble in the second and third matches by resting our star players. I think the gamble was one of the reasons we won the Cup. It rested our players for three vital games and gave everybody a fantastic team feeling. Players and coaches know their days are numbered. For most the chance to play in, let alone win, a World Cup will come around only once.

Another key element, of course, is discipline. To a top side it is as important as discipline to an army - it's everything. Without it there is confusion and waste. True self-discipline is a quality shared by all the best players. It is important to realise that all behaviour, including the response in a split second to provocation, can be pre-determined.

Then there is the political aspect, by which I do not mean the politics of building interest groups, neutralising opponents and manoeuvring for leadership, though this is prominent in South African rugby. It is the politics of managing inter-personal relationships. Strong-willed, highly motivated players need to manage the tensions that inevitably arise. World- class teams are composed of people with well-developed egos. They have a lot at stake and much to lose if things go wrong.

In one sense there can be no easier team to coach. The captain fortunate enough to lead players with such qualities has a team of talented, focused and motivated people who understand exactly where they are going and how to get there. So the leader's most important role is not to get in the way. It is surprising how many do. The coach must work hard to be acknowledged as the best and must find the correct leader - this is vital. The captain- coach relationship is all-important. World-class performers set very high standards and do not suffer fools gladly. Managers risk marginalisation at best and frank opposition at worst if their administration is weak.

There are times, because of the nature of the opposition or the bigger strategic picture, when players who are used to centre stage have to accept lesser roles. There are other times when team members have to change the way they play and still others when they may not play at all. Team members are strong-willed individuals who believe passionately in their ability, or even destiny, to succeed. At the same time, the game demands that they submerge much of their individuality in the interests of the team. The task of managing this balance falls to the coach and captain.

A rugby team has the sub-teams of the front row, the loose forwards, the tight five, the inside backs, the outside backs. Within each there are potential leaders waiting to contribute. Only the most ignorant or insecure coach would not tap such a rich store. There is no substitute for getting people involved and excited. A team, convinced they will win, and excited about the prospects, are well on the way. But you can't be world-class unless you have world-class problems.

Edited by Tim Glover