Cross-country spirit

Creating a high-performance team from four separate nations in a short space of time is one of the key challenges to ensuring a successful Lions Tour this summer and can teach lessons to businesses working across borders.

Andrew Tongue Lions article

When The British & Irish Lions traveled to New Zealand in 1950, they travelled by boat, a journey which took 31 days and gave ample opportunities for team-bonding among the players from the four countries making up the squad. Such was the length of the Tour that Welsh skipper John Gwilliam, the obvious choice as Lions captain after leading Wales to the Grand Slam earlier in the year, was unavailable due to his teaching commitments.

Compare and contrast with the modern game. The demands of the professional era and the congested fixture list means the Lions preparing for the 2017 Tour of New Zealand will have the minimum of time together before they board a plane for their flights, ahead of the first game of the Tour on Saturday, 3 June.

So how does Lions coach Warren Gatland create a winning team spirit in such a short period among a squad of players who will have spent most of the previous few months competing fiercely against each other in the other competitions? 

“Putting together the players from four nations so quickly to go away and play the best team in the world is definitely the biggest challenge for us as a management team,” Gatland says, speaking to EY in February.

“Having spoken to a number of coaches and players from previous Tours and drawing on my experience from 2013, the key thing for me is that if you get things right off the field, you have a good chance of getting them right on it.”

“The Lions are the best of the best, you have players who are the number one players for their clubs and countries, but they come into the Lions and there is a chance that they are only number two or number three in their position from the squad. How do they handle that?” asks Gatland.

“I’ll be talking to their club coaches and also their international coaches to find out more about them because we have to get the chemistry right. We need to try and work out how players will get on with their colleagues and who will be supportive of the rest of the squad, should they not be in the starting team.

Team bonding
Gatland realizes there is a need to allow players to build relationships away from the field, which will lead to stronger alliances and better teaming.

“When we’re in New Zealand, it’s important to ensure we have a bit of fun. We’ll be training hard, but we also need to get the balance right. The opportunity for some downtime is important during a tour like this,” he says.

Understandably, however, in the professional age, there are far fewer of the socializing opportunities which used to characterize the sport.

“The players would have a dinner-dance post game in the Six Nations (or Five Nations as it was) with their partners and they used to get to know each other and have a drink together but now it is more difficult,” says Sir Ian McGeechan, British & Irish Lions ambassador and Head Coach on the 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2009 tours. “Today, they have a sandwich and then jump back on a plane and have a game the next week, so they don’t get to know each other in the same way they did 20 years ago.

“I would always try to get the players together early but as the game has become more professional, finding that time has become a real challenge. My advice is to try and stay away from rugby, using other activities. In 1997, we climbed trees and put canoes on the River Thames. We did things which I felt gave them the bond required so we could beat South Africa.”

McGeechan’s bonding activities and games focused on emphasizing the need for collaboration and teaming. “You can never win anything on your own and the smallest team is just two people. We did exercises and it was all fun but everything was geared to making clear that you couldn’t achieve anything without a minimum of two people. That bonding puts a smile on people’s faces and I think it’s also worth remembering that any successful team smiles a lot.”

EY ambassador Brian O’Driscoll recalls that McGeechan’s strategies worked superbly in 2009, in South Africa. “On that Tour, when I walked into the dining room, I never looked around to see who from which country was sitting where. I just pulled up a chair and sat down. That was proof of how successfully management had merged the four countries into one team.”

Cultural differences
Coaches also need to be aware they may need to vary their techniques and strategies when addressing players from different countries, says McGeechan. “Players learn differently. Some wanted descriptions, some diagrams and some wanted video clips, so, often, strategically important information potentially has to be delivered in four different ways.”

In the same way, successful cross-border team leaders have the ability to recognize cultural differences and are able to adapt their teachings and leadership techniques to meet the needs and expectations of team members from different cultures and backgrounds.

McGeechan cautions that good management is crucial to ensuring harmony in the early days of the Tour, which will set the tone for its entire duration. That includes giving every member of the squad a chance to stake a claim for a spot in the First Test.
“The key thing is the environment the players create. You wouldn’t have the test team picked from day one. Players have to feel they all have a chance of making that test side,” he says.

If this doesn’t happen, cliques can develop in the squad, with some players losing interest in the shared common goal with inevitable consequences.

Lessons for business
We can draw obvious parallels between the way a successful British & Irish Lions team is brought together and a global organization, such as EY, which also brings talented individuals together to create high-performing teams and deliver successful outcomes across geographical boundaries.

We believe that global teams which are led inclusively perform better than those with more homogenous teams. While diverse teams are more likely to improve market share and have success in new markets, they demonstrate stronger collaboration and better retention.

Those characteristics are also what make The British & Irish Lions such a special sporting team — its values and history setting it apart, even in the modern, professional age. Norman Lonergan, Global Vice Chair – Advisory, sums up these unique qualities. “A Lions Tour sees four nations with rich but often diverse cultures come together as one. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in sport and is something we believe in wholeheartedly — that’s why EY is a Lions sponsor.”

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