‘Successful teams have a consistency of thought’ – George Gregan

The Australian World Cup winner provides some insight into how coaches set the standards for their players.

Gregan playing for the Wallabies in 2006.
Gregan playing for the Wallabies in 2006.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

WHAT MAKES A winning team?

If there was a guaranteed working formula, the world of sport would be utterly boring, but there are certainly lessons we can take from the sides who have enjoyed notable success in the past.

Who better to provide us with an insight than George Gregan, a World Cup winner with Australia and 1999, conqueror of the Lions in 2001 and the all-time most-capped played in international rugby? The 40-year-old puts that period of success, which also included a Tri-Nations triumph in 2000, down to the leadership of one man.

“We had Rod McQueen, who’s big on setting up the framework and putting in a really professional environment and culture within the playing group, but also the coaching group. You’re trying to be the best you possibly can every time you run out to train, and he had a long-term vision.

In 1999, we won the World Cup, but there were so many steps we had to take. Sometimes you have to look backwards and look at what happened in the build-up. You talk about those big three teams, us, New Zealand and South Africa. You have to get past them if you’re going to be world champions.”

As it turned out, the Wallabies managed to avoid the All Blacks in the tournament, but a win over South Africa [after extra time] gave them the confidence to power past France in the final.

The journey to that 1999 victory started back in 1997 though, when McQueen first took over the coaching position. The belief and knowledge required to overcome the Springboks had actually been built in 1998, when the Wallabies lost twice to the South Africans.

“We had set backs along the way. I remember we lost the Tri Nations to South Africa the year before the World Cup. You look at those moments, you look at the things you didn’t do well and I think the attitude within the playing group was, ‘How do we improve? How do we set ourselves up to be sure we don’t make those mistakes again?’

“I think that attitude is consistent in all winning teams across all sports; they’re never happy with where they are. They know where they want to go to, they understand the steps required but they’re never happy because they want to improve, even when they’re winning.”

imageGregan in action against South Africa in the 1999 World Cup semi-final. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.

So what specifically helped the Wallabies to improve after defeat? How did they actually learn from the mistakes they made? Gregan reveals that it was their painstaking and insatiable video review system that was the chief factor in avoiding repeating the same errors.

McQueen was a big fan of looking back on the Wallabies’ performances in extreme detail, even when they were winning. Gregan feels that inward focus was vital to the Wallabies’ success.

“The team in that period were really disciplined in their review process. The review process would feed into deciding what we would try to execute in the following weeks. I think that was probably the reason why there was a level of consistency and success within that group.

There was an attitude and mindset in that playing group that we expected every single time we trained and played.”

The Wallabies at that time had some wonderful attacking talent in the likes of Stephen Larkham, Tim Horan, Ben Tune and Gregan himself. The place-kicking of Matthew Burke was important, as were the brutes up front such as Toutai Kefu and John Eales.

Regardless of the team’s style of play, Gregan feels that it was the principles and demands the Wallabies placed on their structures that helped them to win. Another crucial aspect was that every player in the squad bought into the same ideas.

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“When we attacked, whether it was line-out, maul, scrum or broken field, if we were above 90% success rate on all that, it was good. If the defence kept above 90% and then we kept our discipline, in terms of not giving away penalties at ruck, maul, defence, and so on; that meant we gave away no more than 12 or 15 points.

“We always felt that we’d be able to score more points than the opposition. We were very comfortable with the thought that we could defend. I think all successful teams have that; they have that attitude, that understanding, that bind.

“There’s a real consistency of thought of how you want to play. Everyone has to buy into it. The attitude of self-improvement is very important too. We had some dips in the road, but we always had our eye on where we wanted to be. That’s very important.”

imageRod McQueen was the brains behind the Wallabies success according to Gregan. ©INPHO/Patrick Bolger.

Attention to detail is something that appears to link almost all of the great teams, across a wide range of sports. Gregan underlines the importance of the coaching staff in that regard, with McQueen again coming in for praise.

“He set those disciplines up right from the very beginning. We felt it was like a military procedure when he first put it up. But that’s what it was about, looking at ourselves, reviewing our games, review who we were going to play, look at the best ideas and strategies to improve.”

Having guided the Wallabies to victory over the Lions in 2001, McQueen retired. A winning record of close to 80% during his time as national coach spoke volumes for the work the one-time Waratahs coach had done.

While Australia ultimately weren’t as successful under Eddie Jones, another World Cup final in 2003 was no mean feat. Gregan points out that the current Japan coach brought similar levels of detail to the Wallabies’ preparations as McQueen had before him.

If you talk about a man who plans everything, it’s him. Everything was planned, everyone knew what was happening. I remember at the 2003 World Cup, he was looking at every other sport for ways that we could improve.

“He was talking about the Tour de France and how the cyclists were washing their cottage cheese, so it had the perfect amount of what their dietary requirements were. That’s the sort of detail you got with Eddie Jones.

“That inspires you. He’s the coach and he’s trying to improve in any way he can, so it’s very easy to pick it up and have that same attitude.”

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