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Negotiation Lessons from the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Keith Stacey

‘Running’s Not cunning, If That’s All You Can Do.’


This inspired line from Wayne Smith, chief rugby writer for the Australian newspaper, captures the fate of the Wallabies in the 2019 World Cup.  I’m not an expert in the game, but I have followed the commentary and controversy swirling around this recent campaign and Rugby Australia generally over the last year.


For the uninitiated The Wallabies are Australia’s national team in rugby union – and were eliminated (early) from the World Cup.


There are many lessons for negotiators in this saga.


Lesson 1:  Strategies Must Be Simple and Flexible.


The Wallabies had a simple strategy - run the ball irrespective of field position. This might have been a great idea, but the team lacked the skills and discipline to execute the strategy under pressure. Constant changes to team members were made, not because of injury, but because the coach wanted to experiment.


The team was not allowed to settle and gain confidence in each other and the ‘run the ball’ strategy. Because the strategy was inflexible and known to everyone in advance, it was easily countered by the opposition teams.


In the game against England, the Wallabies had 60% of possession but managed to lose 40 points to 16. A famous AFL coach coined the phrase “winning ugly” and then selected a team that could deliver a defensive game plan that limited the opposition’s opportunity to score and provided rebound opportunities when fatigue and error crept in.


The running game may have been, in the coach’s words, “The way we play the game,” but it left no room for a plan B or C if the initial strategy failed to deliver. Also by being absolutely predictable, the Wallabies allowed the opposition to effectively set and forget their own counter plan.


A rigid plan poorly executed, put no pressure on the opposition players or coach at any stage in the game. There was also no room for creativity on the part of the players or innovation and opportunism when the opposition hesitated or fumbled. They never had to react to something different from the Wallabies.


The real shame of this failed campaign was that the outcome and the reasons were widely predicted even before the event. The game has some high profile critics and they had a platform through the media to vent their frustration at this rigidity.


Lesson 2:  There Must Be Alignment Between Corporate and Team Objectives.


After the game the coach was asked about his relationship with the CEO of Rugby Australia. He replied that there was “no relationship”. This is surely an unacceptable state of affairs and it makes it impossible to align the objectives on the field with the wider aims of Rugby Australia.


Perhaps there were distractions for Rugby Australia - the subject of much of the criticism. To sack your leading player in controversial circumstances and to alienate one of Australia’s richest men (and potential backers) in the one year is a special achievement of sorts.


Much of Australian sport has become corporatised in recent years with the AFL becoming a prominent example. The power was taken away from individual clubs and state associations and vested in a central corporate entity. The AFL master plan was developed by some of the leading thinkers from corporate Australia.


While there is much to be critical about, this change overcomes the debilitating weaknesses of state based or club based organisations where parochialism and narrow personal interests conflict with the growth and prosperity of the game overall.


A key example is the AFL’s decision to expand the teams to the Gold Coast and Western Sydney to provide for a national competition with the removal of the Western Force from the rugby competition . The AFL’s decision was against the short-term interests of the existing clubs, but in the long-term interest of the game.


Rugby union has appeared to take a different approach. This is indeed a curious outcome given that many former players of union have ascended the heights of corporate Australia, while in AFL they seem to be concentrated in the commentariat that surrounds the game. Maybe the Queensland and NSW antipathy repeated in Rugby League is at the root of this dysfunction.


So what are the ‘takeaway messages’ for negotiators?


  • Having a single strategy, even a good one, is dangerous if the other party knows you are predictable and can counter your approach.
  • Single strategies limit the opportunities for surprise through creativity and innovation.
  • All parts of an organization must be aligned with clear line of sight between the organisation’s strategic objectives and the mandates of the teams negotiating on their behalf. This requires both clarity of communication, commitment to the strategic goal and sufficient key competencies to achieve the goal.


Were these present in the case of Rugby Australia and the Wallabies? Evidently not.


Happy Negotiating.

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