Attack is about talent, defence is about culture

After two defeats in South Africa and a losing streak of five tests, there is clearly something going wrong in the England rugby camp. Over the last few years, we’ve written about the problems faced by English international players in different sports, but this situation is different because a lack talent cannot be blamed for the team’s poor form. These are the same players who won a record 18 tests in a row and who have scored 7 tries in the two tests, the same as South Africa. They have talent, but, whilst attack is about talent, defence is about culture. Why is it going wrong for England?

The best teams in any organisation have high levels of trust and psychological safety; Google’s research discovered this was the single biggest driver of performance in their teams. It has also been shown that psychological safety is a result of team members holding deeply shared beliefs that they, and their teammates, are in it together. They think about “us” before “me”. They trust in “us”.

“Oneness” inoculates against criticism

For elite athletes, this sense of “oneness” inoculates them against the inevitable criticism from the media they will experience when they make a mistake or have a bad game. The research shows when individuals strongly identify with a team they experience less stress, are more resilient, are sick less often, work harder, are more innovative and are better team members (called organisational citizenship behaviour). They also win more games – our research showed performance increases of 53% in sports teams with the strongest sense of oneness compared to the weakest (top 20% compared to bottom 20%).

But when the belief in “us” is weak highly motivated athletes try to fix things on their own. Their desire to honour the shirt, to respect the legacy, to win, means they try that little bit harder to make the difference.

In rugby when attacking, that extra motivation can lead to spontaneity, risk-taking, brilliance and England have shown that in abundance, scoring some beautiful tries. Talented players on the edge, expressing themselves.

But in defence it is different, the telltales are penalties given away by players trying to make the difference individually. Defensive systems abandoned – offside, hands in the ruck, not releasing the ball when tackled, not rolling away, biting in to tackle the man inside you rather than marking your man. England has conceded 30 penalties, the Springboks 16. These are split-second decisions made by players who are desperate to win and instinctively think they need to make the difference on their own… right now… or it will all go wrong. These are not players who don’t care, they are players who care, but perhaps deep down don’t believe in “us”, who do not have a strong sense of oneness. As England player, Mike Brown said:

“You can call me whatever in terms of how I’ve played, that’s fine. But don’t turn around and say I’m not trying when I’m coming off with bumps and bruises and aching and I’ve given everything I can for England.” Mike Brown. BBC

England is playing like a team without the protection of a shared identity. Why are talented players making mistakes they don’t make in their clubs? What are they thinking when playing for England that they don’t think in their clubs? The explanation put forward by pundits is the international game is so much faster than the club game and the players lack the fitness and awareness to make good decisions at this tempo, but is this true? Are English players really less fit, or less able to make decisions at pace? Faf De Klerk and Willie Le Roux play in the English Premiership with the same tactical training and strength and conditioning regimes as their English counterparts and have been the two most influential players for the Springboks.

Quick fix “no holds barred” conversations will not work

England needs to look to their heads, not their bodies if they want to get back to winning ways. The traditional approach, when faced with a crisis, is for players and coaches to reach a tipping point that forces them to have a no holds barred meeting in which they talk openly and honestly about what they are really thinking. The need to have these conversations is evidence that trust, safety and oneness has broken down. How often over the years have we heard of English football, cricket and rugby teams having these clear the air conversations, only to have to have another one when the next string of poor performances comes along?

The fix they need is longer term and requires them to establish (or rediscover) “who we are” and to embed this into how they do things. Successful teams have a clear identity that drives a performance culture “how we do things here”, which is deeply ingrained in expectations and standards.

One thing is clear from the research, if this England team do not invest the time to examine, discuss and clarify their underlying shared beliefs about “who we are” – their unique identity – they will continue to struggle when the pressure increases. The easy option is to sweat some more on the training park – muscles galvanised, brain unengaged. The brave option is to talk, not about their short-term failures but about how they are going to become the team that only they can be, in a world of advice that is constantly trying to turn them into a copy of something else. I hope Eddie Jones has the knowledge to do this or bring in someone who can help him.


About the author…

Jeremy Holt

Jeremy Holt

Founder & CEO

I am a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with 24 years’ experience of consultancy and coaching, training. I got a First Class Honours degree in Social Psychology from University of Kent and worked in London advertising agencies for seven years before taking an Occupational Psychology MSc at Cranfield in 1993. I founded the Centre for Team Excellence in 1999, having first worked in a small psychology consultancy.


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