Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: an introduction

Welcome to the first in a series of tsf.tech blogs celebrating the 2019 Rugby Union World Cup. Over the coming weeks of the competition – there are forty eights matches and the final is 2 November – we’ll be taking a look at the tournament from the perspective of what we do for a living – tech innovation, product development, smart engineering and creating winning teams.

How much of what we help founders and entrepreneurs with around development and execution of their startup strategy relates to world-class rugby? Lots, for example there’s decision-making under pressure, risk taking and leadership, creating a culture and pushing yourself to the limits.

The tournament ahead of us, which starts with Japan v Russia, is the ninth world cup competition. Australia and South Africa have won it twice, New Zealand three times; the other winner was memorably England, in 2003, and thus far the only northern hemisphere nation to be world champions.

The hostilities for the William Webb Ellis trophy approach. Of course, rugby is a minority interest sport, and none of this really means anything to most of the population. Utter cluelessness will abound over the complexity of rules in what most see as men running around looking to knock each other over and engage in a fierce tussle, wrestling an egg-shaped ball. Let’s face it, if you weren’t brought up on rugby at school, you just don’t get it.

Most first time observers will notice that everything in rugby is oblong. The field is oblong, the players are oblong, and consequently, the shirts are oblong. The shirts are the sort of thing that once no longer able to absorb the mud, water and yanking on the field, you can wear to wash the car in – or with. So, let me explain some of the history, rules, formations and etiquette of the game.

History of the game

What they play in this rugby world cup is rugby union, a 15-a-side game containing amorphous huddles of large, oblong men who step on each other. 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 vital. Rugby union is the game they play in heaven, and yet the most 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.

The game originated following a meeting in The George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, driven by the authorities seeking to enforce the amateur principle of the sport, preventing ‘broken time payments’ to players who had taken time off work to play rugby. Northern teams typically had more working class players (coal miners, mill workers etc.) 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. As a consequence, rugby league is stronger than union in the North.

However, this is at least as likely as the official version – that rugby began during a game of football at Rugby school in Warwickshire. In 1823, goes the story, a schoolboy named William Webb Ellis, basically bored by the game, picked up the ball and ran the length of the field with it. And a whole new game grew out of that.

 Assuming the positions

A rugby team consists of Forwards and Backs. Among the Forwards – the hearty, handsome muscle men – are such positions as the Props (2), a Hooker, the Second Rowers (2), Flankers (2) and the Number Eight. These are the real blokes who do all the work, have punch-ups and bully the backs (see below) in training, the dressing room and when out socialising as a team. The Forwards stick together as a ‘pack’, and you’ll hear them running like the sound of a stampede of deranged wildebeest. By the way, you want your daughter to marry a Forward, not a Back.

Lurking behind the Forwards are the Backs, who include: Scrum-Half, Fly-Half, Inside and Outside Centres, two Wingers, and a Full-Back. No scientific research has ever revealed what they do other than run with the ball, fall over with operatic drama when get tackled and give yet more work to the Forwards. Basically the Backs dive around a lot trying to look good.

Backs are clearly distinguishable from the Forwards by their obvious over- use of men’s beauty products and visits to the dental hygienist, fear of getting dirty – they leave the field with shirts unblemished whilst the forwards are typically ripped to smithereens and covered in mud, blood and sweat – and drinking fresh coconut water in the bar, whilst the Forwards get stuck into the beer. And then get stuck into the Backs.

The rules

The game has two halves of 40 minutes apiece. This is about the only rugby rule you’ve got a chance of understanding if you didn’t play the game at school.

The team in possession of the ball (egg-shaped, 15cm x 30cm) is seeking to score a ‘Try’, by putting the ball down across the opposition try-line (there’s the clue.) So a bloke runs with the ball until tackled, and then everyone sort of gets giddy, jumping in together into a shapeless mass, highlighted by a spirited form of folk-dancing in which they attempt to sink their boot-studs into the nearest deposit of 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.

Complicated bits

Every so often, the referee blows his whistle, apparently out of pity, contrariness, or boredom. This will usually result in either:

A scrum: a vital attacking and psychological tool. The scrum takes place after infringements. The Forwards pack down as a unit, link arms and immediately group-head-butt their opposite numbers while frantically kicking at their ankles and trying to out-grunt their counterparts; the hooker tries to win the ball for their back teammates behind them, using their feet.

How dominant the Backs are in a match, and how much space and time they have to work with is determined by the dominance of the Forwards and the scrum.

A ruck is the phase of play when one or more players from each team are bound over the ball, which is on the ground between them. The aim of the ruck is for the players to roll the ball with their feet to their teammates behind them. A maul is similar to the ruck, except the ball is not on the floor but is the hands of one of the players.

The lineout takes place after the ball has left the field of play. Here players from both teams form lines, the hooker throws the ball 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.

Line-outs and scrums sometimes resemble mayhem, in that the players often don’t get it quite right, prompting the referee to get flustered and picky, awarding a penalty to one team out of exasperation.

Every time the referee interrupts the playful pandemonium by blowing his whistle, he shouts out in a booming Brian Blessed-type voice what decision he has made, and despite the 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.

The ball has to be passed backwards, whilst running forwards, and you can’t knock-on or be offside. (Blimey, see second blog on more rules).


Simple. 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 kick going over the crossbar. Most times the team with the most tries wins.

So that’s it really.

The closer we get to the tournament, the more I think England could win, they are in a trio of the top contenders with New Zealand and South Africa. World champions New Zealand are seeking an unprecedented hat-trick, but are they wobbling on their throne? There are several things they are missing when compared to four years ago – Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Richie McCaw for a start, the trio bowed out of international rugby with the final win over Australia in 2015.

Since their 2015 victory, New Zealand had lost just three of the following 33 Tests. But, with their opening pool match and a potential final dress rehearsal against second-favourites South Africa looming, things are not quite so certain. In August they lost a Bledisloe Cup game by a record 26-47 to Australia. The game before that they were held 16-16 by a resurgent South Africa. Nine months previously, they had been squeezed out by a relentless Ireland side in Dublin, going down 9-16.

So is this the end of an era, or just a false dawn for their chasing rivals, and will the recent taste of adversity sharpen the All Blacks’ appetite for more world cup glory? South Africa on Saturday will be a stern test of the champions’ credentials and whether the All Blacks’ era of dominance is ending, but they have experience of winning this tournament, a method of playing and a culture that sets them as the best in the world. They have lost a few matches recently, but their response against Australia and Tonga in their last couple of matches suggested they are in world cup mode. If I had to pick a team to win it, they would still be my choice.

In a rugby game as in a startup, you face those pinch-point situations when the heat is on – from making a critical decision in-the-moment in an investor meeting, to keeping a cool head in the rugby scrum – times when you need to function correctly under pressure. The reality is that most people fail in extreme situations. They choke, they get stage fright and their astute, high-wire decision-making skills fail them.

Given all the factors that contribute to success in high-pressure circumstances in rugby and startup life, what can you do to improve your performance? Steps you can take range from brief and immediate solutions for any situation, to more advanced techniques that require considerable practice:

Step away from the situation If you’re too close to the heat, you may not see all your options. Step away, allow your subconscious to process your circumstances, then approach the situation with a calm, new perspective.

Speed up If you have a tendency to overanalyse, the worst thing you can do is give yourself more time. Act right away. Trust your gut instincts, telling yourself you have the skills to perform the task. Leaping into the breach prevents your conscious mind from interfering.

Focus on the goal, not the obstacle In high-pressure situations, much can go wrong, and you can get stuck thinking about every negative possibility. Focus instead on what you want to do. Don’t think about potential errors, think about executing a success – simply, do what you have to do.

Practice (under pressure) – You are more likely to perform well under pressure if you prepare in stressful situations. Up the stakes so you have something on the line when practicing. To make your performance stronger, rehearse areas you’re most likely to be required to do well in or skills that have the most consequences riding on them.

Frame the future New situations can be difficult to make sense of. Feeling lost can spike your anxiety and make choking more likely. Ensure success by framing the future in specific, positive ways. In the business world, this may be as simple as making a strong first impression; in rugby, think through how you want to come out of the next scrum before packing down.

The world cup is upon us. If the unbelievable welcome – summed up by 15,000 Japanese people singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in a packed stadium to watch Wales train – is anything to go by, then this world cup is one none of us will forget in a hurry.

Read my series of rugby world cup blogs and the lessons for startups by following me on LinkedIn, or checking out the blog section on the tsf.tech web site: https://thestartupfactory.tech/journal

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