We flew from Tokyo to London after defeat in the 2019 World Cup final and, while I said most of the right things, and tried to shrug and smile when asked how I felt, I was bereft. I felt just as empty as I had done 16 years earlier when I had coached Australia to the World Cup final in Sydney – losing in extra time to England and that Jonny Wilkinson drop goal.
I had made the mistake of staying on as the Wallabies’ head coach because I thought I could set a new vision and start a new cycle of success. The vision made sense but I made too many mistakes over the next two years. It was partly down to sheer fatigue. I was burnt out by the job. Even before I was sacked in 2005, I knew it would have been better for both Australian rugby and myself if we had made a clean break after the final.
England was different. Months before we left for Japan I had signed a new contract to remain as head coach until 2021. While the Rugby Football Union wanted me to take England to the next World Cup in 2023, I needed to work out if I had the necessary desire to complete another four-year cycle.
The easy option was to see out my contract and help England prepare the way for a new coaching regime. I would be professional and dedicated and oversee the transition before I began a new rugby adventure of my own in 2021. Secondly, I knew it would be wrong to renege on my agreement and walk out on England before then. They had given me a fascinating and unexpected opportunity by appointing me as head coach in 2015.
The third option seemed uncertain. Could I really lift myself and England and have an almighty crack at another four years? How would I even go about such a task? Was it a crazy idea? Or could I achieve even more this time around than I had done in the first cycle where I started with a 17-Test winning streak and a Grand Slam on the way to the World Cup final?
It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of a giant corporation, the head of a school department, the coach of a sports team or just the leader in any activity which you love. You’ve always got to know where you’re going. Your final goal, your mission, provides the map to help you reach your destination.
It was obvious I had the hunger to continue all the way to France in 2023. I was climbing aboard the train again and I was ready to drive it to the very end with renewed impetus. But, before I told anyone, I needed to imagine the end point myself. I needed to set the vision.
I also reminded myself that no one knows the limits of what we can do. If we set the right vision for ourselves, we can push past the imagined boundaries and reach somewhere new. There was no point regurgitating the same vision as before by telling everyone we were aiming to win the World Cup in 2023. That was less a vision than an echo of the original plan. Obviously that World Cup-winning aim would be at the heart of our endeavours, but we needed a new vision which would inspire the players.
The seed of an idea had begun to germinate. I have always been open to influences outside of sport, and the longer I have worked in coaching, the more that curiosity has grown. It is one of the reasons why, over the last seven years, I have acted as a part-time consultant on the Goldman Sachs board in Tokyo. Business people are often fascinated by elite sport and they are keen to extract any lessons we offer. At the same time, in sport, we can learn so much from leaders in business and other fields. So my occasional meetings at Goldman Sachs were a reciprocal arrangement – and they have been of great benefit to me.
A prime example is that my work there led me to forge a friendship with Tadashi Yanai. He is a Japanese billionaire but, to me, being less interested in money, he is much more than that. Tadashi is a bold and original thinker who is relentless and courageous in his visionary way. He is the founder, owner and president of Fast Retailing, which is dominated by Uniqlo – the company he set up in 1984. Uniqlo now have about 2,500 stores around the world and Tadashi is considered the richest man in Japan. In 2021 his personal wealth was estimated at more than $45 billion. Personally, I love the story of how he became successful.
Tadashi’s father owned a department store in western Japan. It was a small and modest company. When Tadashi eventually took over from his dad and began running the store, the business blew up in a few weeks. Every employee in his area quit because he was too brash. Tadashi was driven and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. But, as he tells the story to me now, he didn’t have any emotional intelligence or even the basic capacity to work with people. He wanted to change everything his father had built up in order to make the old department store something new and very different. But it didn’t work.
It was time for Tadashi to step back and think. Instead of tearing up a steady business, it became clear to him that he should set up his own department store. Rather than just attacking the business in a haphazard way, he also took the time to set out his vision.
He explains now that, at the same time, he learnt how to teach and how to lead. He had begun as a very autocratic leader, but the more lessons he absorbed, the more he morphed into a company owner who gave responsibility back to his workforce. But he and his staff always kept his vision in mind – which was to become the biggest casual-clothes brand in the world. They are closing in on the dream as they’re now up to number three in the world of fast fashion. Only Zara, the Spanish company, and H&M, from Sweden, are ahead of Uniqlo.
Time to dream even bigger
I thought of Tadashi’s bold vision, and the courage and drive of his character, as I set the vision for England in late November 2019. I had four years ahead of me and I wanted to emulate Tadashi in believing that there is no end of possibility to what we can do. I imagined a vision for England that would be far bigger than anything ever dreamt up in this rugby-playing country where extravagant ambition generally creates suspicion and doubt.
None of the cultural differences between me, the little bloke who looks half-Japanese while sounding like a full-on Aussie, and the English rugby establishment should ever get in the way. It still makes me laugh – the irony of an Australian coaching the England rugby team. It was one of the attractions for me in taking the job because I knew it would be difficult. I might be the first and the last Australian ever to coach England because our thought patterns, as sports people, are diametrically opposed.
In 2015 I had to be brave enough to change. I had to accept the traditions of England rugby while also being strategic enough to transform the mindset that clogged the game over here. I reined in my more abrasive characteristics while making some appropriate changes to English rugby.
I had done that for four years and we had been relatively successful. The bare statistics said I had the best rate of winning Test matches of any England coach in history. But, still, we had fallen just short of completing the World Cup dream.
It was time to dream even bigger. I had the end in mind, at the very start of this new cycle of activity, and I was convinced of the vision.
We would turn England into the world’s greatest team.
The vision was set and, most excitingly of all, there was no finite finish line. Any coach and team can achieve short-term success. But the essence of greatness is sustained success. We would aim to keep improving and winning, climbing higher and higher, with a dream that included – and stretched beyond – winning the World Cup.
The end goal was clear. We would strive to become the best team in rugby history.
A psychology of certainty
We will focus more on the process of where we want to go – and concentrate on helping extend and encourage the players to think big. To become the greatest team in the world, we need five or six of our players to establish themselves as the very best in their position. So we have made it a goal to change the whole way we talk about selection. Being picked for England isn’t the pinnacle. Now we’re saying: ‘This is just an entrée, boys. You’re just beginning your real career.’
For all great teams there will come a time when continued success might tempt them to divert their attention from the nitty-gritty work that made them brilliant in the first place. They are human, and so they can become complacent or arrogant. But, as a leader, you can stop this happening. You don’t need to change your vision but you do need to keep the ideas fresh. You have to keep stimulating the environment.
You have got to keep changing personnel. Freshen up the staff around you. Reinvigorate your fellow coaches and the players with new people and different ideas. Always be brave enough to change a winning team if you sense a looming slump. It’s tricky, but if you’ve been walking the shop floor, your eyes and your gut – combined with the arsenal of stats and data we have at our disposal these days – will tell you when to reboot your programme.
You need a psychology of certainty. That iron belief is often forged in adversity. Don’t allow your staff or your team to become comfortable. It’s no bad thing to keep people on edge so that they try to do more. How do you instil this uncomfortable edge that means the intensity rarely drops? Sometimes it comes through the selection process. Some players will become complacent, while some will never fall into that hole. You’ve got to move on the first group and find the players who hate and fear complacency – and are always restless, always relentless, always searching for the next stage of their development.
The aim is to make the opposition feel that we are almost impossible to beat. New Zealand sometimes have that down to a fine dark art. Like Mike Tyson in his prime, the All Blacks have intimidated many of their rivals. But the real key to their greatness is that they never seem to be beaten.
They are always coming at you. Even when you are 15 points ahead of them it still feels difficult. They usually never drop their intensity or utter certainty that they will prevail at the death. We beat them decisively in the World Cup, but the All Blacks retain the template when we consider rugby history. They are simply the hardest bastards to beat in rugby. That’s the kind of side we aspire to become – a seemingly indestructible team.
My samurai sword and kiwi fruit trick inspired us to face down the haka – and beat the All Blacks
The World Cup is a reminder that constant winning is abnormal. Twenty teams play in the tournament and only one emerges as the winner. For 19 teams it’s normal to lose in the end. Only one team is going to be abnormal. So you’re always striving to be abnormal and it’s incredibly difficult. People might expect that, before we beat the All Blacks, I would have made a defining, tub-thumping speech of leadership to inspire an exceptional performance. I was, instead, pretty low-key and measured that evening.
But, three days earlier, on the Wednesday, I felt we weren’t quite there in training. We weren’t sharp enough for the All Blacks. So I did something different that evening. I brought a samurai sword into the team room. It was impressive and authentic and I had spent a fair amount of money on it from an antique shop in Tokyo. I also brought in some kiwi fruit. You could say it was cheesy, rather than fruity, but I used the samurai sword to scythe them in two. The blade was so sharp that the kiwi fruits split apart in an instant.
‘There you go, boys,’ I said. ‘See how we do it now?’
The players were laughing but a few of them shot me a look as if to say, ‘S—, this guy is nuts.’ I still walked around the room with the samurai sword and made them all feel the deadly blade.
From there we developed the idea of facing down the haka in a V formation with Owen Farrell at the head of it. We also had a very rigorous meeting with the players’ leadership group the next morning and I pointed out some of the minor problems. The players addressed them and got it right. We won the game.
If we had lost, people would have been entitled to say: ‘How stupid was all that stuff with the samurai sword?’ But it makes a good story and we can say we brought out the sword and a small tray of kiwi fruit before one of England’s most famous victories.
Come back on Thursday November 25 to read the next exclusive extract