Lions Watch: Insights from a study of international football managers and team performance

May 22, 2009


Scott Williams applies results from his research into international football teams to suggest insights into the prospects for the upcoming Lions tour of South Africa

Scott, a member of the LWD Rugby panel sends the following post:

My dissertation work at Manchester Business School has been based on a performance analysis of international football teams under foreign leadership. I looked at performance of national teams under national and non-native (exogenous) managers. One of the key results from this was that exogenous foreign were, in the majority of cases, more successful if they were nationals from the most successful football nations. Notable examples illustrating this include (German national) Otto Rehhagel’s record with Greece – which included the trophy winning Euro 2004 campaign; (England national) Jack Charlton’s record with the Republic of Ireland; and (Brazilian national) Zico’s record with Japan. The particular cultural match or mis-match between coach and players did not prove to be significant.

In my study, the managers were dealing with culturally homogenous squads of players (although there were still some cultural variations – for example the effect of club culture, particularly on players from foreign clubs – only 2 out of 22 selected for Brazil’s squad recently played club football in Brazil.

The difference in the Lions’ set-up is that the players are not from one nation, but four. However, it seems at least plausible to consider the implications if we take the results and extrapolate to another sport and another international context.

They suggest that maybe one day the Lions will take the logical step of picking a Coach from New Zealand or South Africa.

A more personal view

Setting aside the results of the study (which is still nearing completion), I can’t argue with the selection of Paul O’Connell as Lions captain, although I did think they’d go for Brian O’ Driscoll (quality and consistency reasons, as well as being generally a big performer in the massive games, for example his Man of the Match performance against Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-final.

I think that O’Connell is a sound choice, although a potential issue is the strength of his opposite numbers. In an earlier post, Paul Evans makes the point about Botha and Matfield, who are regarded as the best lock partnership in the world, and O’ Connell may come out second best. This, I think is important for team performance. For all the leadership qualities held by O’ Connell, if he’s getting outperformed in the line out or in the loose, it is up to others in the team to make up for this, which I don’t think is ideal. On the other hand, O’ Driscoll is much more likely to get one over his likely opposite number Adi Jacobs – a guy not considered to be in the same league .

My experience in football and rugby indicates that the most respected captains lead primarily by example, and that other aspects such as physical stature are secondary to this.

I think it’s very interesting to note the absence of national captains. Steve Borthwick (England), Ryan Jones (Wales), and Mike Blair (Scotland) were excluded from the original squad (though Blair has now been called up to replace Tomas O’Leary). It is understandable based on form – I agree there were better candidates that all three of these players initially, so the fact that they are national captains may be irrelevant. Although it is interesting to consider the impact on a non-captain national team player of having their national leader’s leadership role overshadowed by someone else. For example, how would Harry Ellis feel if it was O’Connell, not Borthwick (if he was selected) who was providing the main source of leadership? One would hope, that given the historical nature of the Lions being “all-for-one” so to speak, that this would not be an issue. This attitude has seemingly been evidenced by senior players Phil Vickery and Martyn Williams, who have outlined that personal egos are secondary to the team ethic of the Lions.

O’ Connell and McGeechan are, in my terms, exogenous leaders for many members of the squad. However, their records in terms of trophies won, and previous Lions experience makes them solid leaders, on and off the field.

Woodward’s downfall
I think Clive Woodward’s downfall was due to the large number of players included in the 2005 squad, which, combined with his extensive backroom staff list (admittedly based on the success of the policy of having so many backroom staff in the England set-up), gives the impression that creating a united Lions players and management team was always likely to be difficult.

Ian McGeechan has recently said this to be imperative for a successful tour . Furthermore, Jonny Wilkinson said in his book that people on the 2005 tour roomed separately, a tactic reportedly not being repeated this time. Combined with a smaller squad size, this should help to recreate the Lions’ cultures of 1997 and 2001, which are the only tours I know much about.

I am generally very happy with the squad selection. Most players have been chosen according to form, and there are also a wide variety of ages and national experience (notably Leigh Halfpenny and Keith Earls). This implies experience and past honours are not necessarily of huge importance, which creates that all important culture of equality in terms of being able to nail down a test spot (Graeme Rowntree has come out and said all 15 places are up for grabs), which should be great for overall team ethos and unity.


This post was prepared by Scott Williams a final year Undergraduate student at MBS, who is studying for a BSc (Hons) in International Management and who is also an avid follower and ex-player of Rugby Union.

The Image of Harmony seemed an appropriate one. You can also down load it as a screen save

Life with the Rugby Lions: Background to the 2009 Tour

January 14, 2009


The British and Irish Lions are preparing for the 2009 tour against the South African Springboks. Ian McGeehan is off-field leader of a team which will compete against the current world champions of rugby. He will also have to deal with the ‘mid-week team’ problem, and the potential off-field clash of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures

The tour has echoes of the famous 1997 tour in which the Lions had also visited South Africa. Coincidentally, the Springboks had at that time too been current world champions, and McGeehan had been chief coach of the Lions.

Background to the Rugby Lions

The British and Irish Lions reflect a cherished rugby tradition with a team assembled representing the members of the Home Nations championship (England, Scotland Ireland and Wales). The Lions players still come from these nations, although the original championship has long been extended to include France, and more recently Italy.

Anglo-Irish Politics and the North South divide

It should be noted that Ireland in this tournament is represented by a combined team with players from the Irish nation, and from the British and unionist province of Ulster. The issue of governance of Ireland has been one of the historically important ones for Ireland and the United Kingdom for many years, and became particularly intense and bloody over the period of The Troubles in the mid 1980s to the turn of the century. This was followed by a period of implementing the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement, which continues to the present time. We have reported this in an earlier post.

In popular shorthand, the North of the Island is the geographical core of the battle for a united Ireland, with cultural, geographic and religious tensions between North and South. Although a dangerous over-simplification, the ‘two cultures’ are often stereotyped as a Protestant North, and a Catholic South.

In a host of daily experiences, the citizens of Ireland co-exist within all-Ireland Institutions. In sport, the institutions include Rugby Union and League, Cricket, Hockey, as well as traditional Irish sports such as Hurling. Football is governed, in contrast, by Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Bodies. Religious institutions are all all-Ireland in scope including the influential Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Anglican Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

In any study of sports management such cultural differences are likely to be a consideration. An obvious source of tension will be the inescapable fact that in most instances, the leader will be be drawn from one of the communities, and faces the challenge of creating and retaining team coherence, and of loyalty and respect from those coming from the other cultural traditions.

Distributed leadership and the midweek team problem

Over various tours, midweek matches have been played by a group of players considered less gifted than the squad playing the test matches and week-end matches. While in principle, mid-week players can ‘play their way’ into consideration for selection for the test-matches – the ultimate personal achievement – the reality is dealing with the presumption that they are second-best. This is a morale problem, which has deepened over time as the mid-week role has become increasingly recognised in these terms.

Disenchanted players find it easy to attribute non-selection to wider cultural preferences by the tour leadership. Clive Woodward’s lack of success as a Lions’ manager in 2005, after his world-championship success as England manager in 2003, was attributed, in part, to his failure to resolve the mid-week problem. The media (and players subsequently) made it a major issues, as week by week, the Lions limped through their New Zealand itinerary to humiliating defeat after defeat, losing the test series 3-0. Woodward’s coaching methods, man-management, and extended loyalty to the English players he knew well, all came under intense scrutiny..

Cultural symbolism

By the 1930s cultural diversity was implicitly and symbolically acknowledged in the team colours: red jerseys, white shorts, blue socks and green stocking-tops, (to represent Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland respectively). Recently, senstivities over labels had rresulted in an official name The British and Irish Lions, as well as the pithier label of The Lions

Follow the tour

Leaders we deserve will be following the 2009 tour, drawing on the views of sporting administrators and rugby experts. We hope the posts will interesting, enlightening, and maybe providing material which throws light on leadership issues in and beyond the world of rugby football. Quick polls will make for interesting evidence of changing views as the tour progresses. We welcome comments, and the wider distribution of the posts, to enrich discussions even further.

Polling your views