Insights from rugby union on building your startup team

The tenth Rugby Union World Cup kicks off Friday, with hosts France facing New Zealand in Paris. There are twenty teams taking part and the winners will lift the Webb Ellis Cup at the Stade de France on 28 October.

England start their campaign against Argentina on Saturday, when Ireland face Romania. Scotland meet reigning champions South Africa the following day, and Wales play Fiji. South Africa won the last World Cup held in Japan in 2019, beating England 32-12 in the final. In the World Cup’s 36-year history, only four countries – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and England – have triumphed, with England the only northern hemisphere team.

Ireland is currently ranked world number one but have never made it past the quarter-final stage, surely this year that hoodoo will end. Second in the rankings is South Africa, their record 35-7 win over the All Blacks last month in their warm-up game shows they will be a formidable threat as they seek a fourth World Cup triumph.

Third seeds France are my tip to win. I think they have the perfect wine to pair with their Camembert, the classic French flair and flamboyance has always been there, but they now have the gritty defence and tactical nous too, although they will feel the loss of fly-half Romain Ntamack keenly. Keep an eye out for Antoine Dupont, France’s captain and fly-half. He’s my favourite French player since Sébastien Chabal, and in the pantheon of French greats alongside Serge Blanco, Jean-Pierre Rives, Phillipe Sella, and Serge Betsen.

Three times winners the All Blacks find themselves at a low, but they have winning in their DNA. A wounded All Blacks side is one of the scariest prospects in international sport. Scotland, Argentina, Fiji, England, Australia, and Wales make up the top ten.

I love Rugby Union, but it’s a minority sport and as such doesn’t mean much to most people in the UK, but check out the official web site rugbyworldcup to get a sense of the tournament. To the casual viewer, utter confusion abounds over complex rules in what most see as men chasing each other, looking to knock each other over whilst wrestling for an egg-shaped ball. Let’s face it, if you weren’t brought up on rugby, you probably don’t get it.

But Rugby Union is the game they play in heaven, yet a painstaking study of either Old or New Testament is unlikely to reward the reader with any reference to Jesus, St Peter, or the Archangel Gabriel scrummaging on the 22m line. So, let me explain some of the history, rules, formations and etiquette of the game, and the lessons from what for me is the ultimate team sport, for startup teams.

This World Cup is Rugby Union, a 15-a-side game containing amorphous huddles of large, oblong men who step on each other en masse. The game goes for two halves of 40 minutes apiece. Rugby League, on the other hand, is a 13-a-side game, in which large, square men run full pelt into each other. These differences are subtle, but essential.

The game split in 1895 at a meeting in The George Hotel, Huddersfield, driven by the authorities seeking to enforce the amateur principle, preventing ‘broken time payments’ to players who had taken time off work to play. Northern teams typically had more working class players (think miners, factory workers) who could not afford to play without this compensation, in contrast to affluent southern teams who had other sources of income to sustain the amateur principle (think Downton Abbey). As a consequence, League is stronger than Union in the North of England.

The Game

A rugby team consists of Forwards and Backs:

Forwards the hearty muscle men, the positions are Props (2), Hooker, Second Row (2), Flankers (2) and Number Eight. These are the blokes who do all the work, have punch-ups, and taunt the backs (see below) in training, the dressing room and when out socialising. Forwards stick together as a ‘pack’. When I played, I was a forward, as was my son James.

Backs include Scrum-half, Fly-half, Centres (2), Wingers (2), and Full-back. No scientific research has ever revealed what they do other than run with the ball, fall over with operatic drama when tackled and give yet more work to the Forwards. The Backs dive around trying to look good.

Backs are distinguishable from the Forwards by their obvious over-use of men’s beauty products and visits to the dental hygienist. Backs drink fresh coconut water in the bar, whilst the Forwards get stuck into the beer. And then get stuck into the Backs. You want your daughter to marry a Forward, not a Back.

Play The team in possession of the ball (egg-shaped, 60cm x 30cm, 435g) is seeking to score a ‘Try’, by putting the ball down across the opposition try-line (there’s the clue.)  A player runs with the ball until tackled, and then everyone gets giddy. Jumping in together in a spirited form of folk-dancing, players attempt to get the ball and accidently make contact with opposition soft tissue. By the way, this is for the Forwards, the Backs stay well back for fear of getting a chipped fingernail in the melee.

A ruck is formed when at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground. Players involved in all stages of the ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips. The aim of the ruck is for the players to roll the ball with their feet to their teammates behind them. A maul begins when a player carrying the ball is held by an opponent, and the ball carrier’s teammates bind on the ball carrier. A maul therefore consists, when it begins, of at least three players, all on their feet; the ball carrier and one player from each team. Hope that’s clear.

A scrum is a means of restarting play after a stoppage which has been caused by a minor infringement (for example, a forward pass or knock-on) or the ball becoming unplayable in a ruck or maul. It is a vital attacking and psychological tool. The Forwards pack down as a unit, link arms and try to out-grunt and shove their counterparts and win the ball, using their feet only.

The lineout takes place after the ball has left the field of play. Here Forwards from both teams stand in line opposite each other, the hooker throws the ball straight between them and they jump up to catch it, and then feed the ball to the scrum-half. It is a combination of a ruck and ballet, in that players are allowed to propel their teammate by grabbing a fistful of crotch and/or buttock and launching him skywards at the incoming ball.

Scoring a try is worth five points, a conversion, which comes after a try is scored, two points. Three points for a penalty, which results from a successful drop-kick going over the cross bar. Mostly the team with the most tries wins.

Finally, every time the ref interrupts the general pandemonium by blowing his whistle for an infringement, he shouts out in a booming Brian Blessed-type voice his decision, and despite the testosterone physicality of rugby, you’ll see 100% respect for the referee and his decisions – no petulance, answering back or heckling like you do from footballers.

Talking of football, rugby is a game played by men who spend 80 minutes trying not to look injured and play the game honestly; football is a game played by men who spend 90 minutes trying to look injured and not play the game honestly. Just my opinion…

So, that’s a quick guide to the game.

Rugby is a team effort, not just individuals. The formation of a rugby team demands certain specialised skills and experience like any startup team, and building a successful team in any sphere is always a challenge.  But what are the takeaways from building a successful rugby team to crafting a high-performance startup team, delivering stellar output and results?

1. Balance means the mental and physical sides of rugby, and more than work-life harmony in business. In a startup it’s all about getting stuff done, but attention to learning and experimentation can be easily compromised. While people may be driven by their work, they may also suffer from the focus that comes with it.

A thriving team is mindful of the importance of balance. A thriving team walks the line between team performance and individual learning, achieving results and maintaining well-being, managing the tension between learning and performance as key to success and sustainability.

2. Common Purpose plays a critical role in both rugby and startups because it is the source of the meaning and significance people seek in what they do. A startup team’s purpose should guide their day-to-day actions. A shared purpose and direction anchor teams in time of growth with new members joining.

This also fuels shared accountability and alignment. A consensus on shared accountability outlaws negative behaviours that harms team culture. When people feel a sense of shared ownership, they contribute to each other’s success, for individual and team results. They set high performance standards and count on each other to deliver high quality work.

3. Effective Communication is the engine of a thriving team. When people connect directly with one another and establish communication, the team is more likely to be successful.

On the other hand, when a team doesn’t encourage open communication and transparency, people work in silos and don’t share information that could be helpful for each other. A thriving team needs to invest in developing the right mindset and skills for effective communication, encouraging inclusivity and transparency. On the field or in a product development meeting, this is essential.

4. Mutual Trust In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni identifies ‘absence of trust’ as a root cause of team dysfunction. Without trust, team members may not buy into the team ethos. They may avoid sharing their ideas, taking risks, or giving feedback. This hurts the team’s performance and relationships. A thriving team is trusting and trustworthy, building the team’s capacity to innovate and achieve great results.

5. Meaningful Engagement Engaged people are more effective and find more fulfilment. Being engaged in work is a crucial component of high performance, productivity, and retention, regardless of an organisation’s size. Meaningful engagement means cultivating a culture in which people care about and are fulfilled by their work, build healthy relationships, and co-create a workplace that they care about.  

For a rugby team and a startup team, it should be a strategic objective to build a culture with a focus on increasing connectivity, communication, and collaboration to nurture meaningful engagement.


Building and sustaining a thriving team is a dynamic and ongoing process, an important growth objective for a startup. I like the imagery of a ‘thriving team’, one where energy, camaraderie and respect exists. It relies on the team getting to know each other, bonding and forming relationships.

Digital technologies offer the opportunity to create a more connected, and a more adaptive organisation for the future. However, we need to create context, and rugby is a throwback, there are no digital tools for eighty minutes in the maelstrom of the game, great teams are created on and off the pitch, with the people right in front of us. Don’t lose sight of the impact from face-to-face chemistry in your startup.

In rugby, players prepare for a big hit and constant stop-starts, setbacks are therefore planned for and overcome. The same attitude should be taken in startups. Just because you are defeated in one phase of play does not mean that you can’t bounce back in the next moment.

Whoever wins the Rugby World Cup – the All Blacks, South Africa, or France – will be an outstanding team of individuals, not a team of outstanding individuals. Everyone will play their part as you need in a startup. And there’s always the underdog spirit of a startup. As Shakespeare said we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. Come on England!

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