Many Minds Thinking as One

On Saturday the 2nd of November 2019, the world was treated to a sterling performance by two of the top rugby teams in the world, South Africa vs England. Spoiler alert: South Africa came out on top! And it was no accident. It is one thing to see a team win, and another entirely when they thoroughly deserved it!

But how did the Springboks do it? Is winning the culmination of years of practice and then winging it on the day (pun intended)? Or was there a plan? And if there was, what happens when you deviate from that plan?

While we are not going to pretend that we know what the South African Springboks planned to do, we can make some inferences about their approach based on how they performed on the day. This is also not to say that England did not do the things mentioned below. For today, let’s deep dive into the mindset behind the South Africa vs England game using the four-quadrant model of whole-brain thinking.

Here’s what the four-quadrant model looks like:

Each person has a preference for the different modes of thinking found in the modal above. Some may prefer the approach to thinking found in the L1 quadrant (think very analytical thinking). Others may put more credence on people and interactions, such as the R2 quadrant. People can also have preferences that spread equally across 2 or more quadrants.

Now, what happens in a team? You can look at a team like one larger individual with many moving parts. Essentially, imagine taking all the preferences of the team members and averaging them out over the greater group. If the team had more left-brain thinkers, the team would generally behave in ways congruent with left-brained ways of thinking as shown in the modal above. It would be a focussed, organised team, probably very traditional and bent on always sticking to the plan.

This is just an example to show how individual thinking preferences can affect the team overall. But the big question is: should the team allow itself to be ruled by the majority thinking preferences within it?

Having a team that is very focussed and organised is good, but what about the camaraderie and moments of intuitive brilliance? There must be a balance and the ability to operate outside of your most natural thinking preferences. This is called Whole Brain Thinking, and it is an essential skill that a world-class sports team must master in order to come out on top.

Let’s delve into the Springboks, looking at their 2019 Rugby World Cup Final one quadrant at a time.

R2 Thinking on the Field

One of the most glaringly obvious dynamics about the 2019 Springbok team was their teamwork. The men were obviously good friends and they trusted each other. Not everyone has to get along off the field, but on it they were companions. They rejoiced in each other’s successes and encouraged those who made mistakes.

Look at the first try in the 2019 World Cup Final scored by Makazole Mapimpi. After catching Mapimpi’s chip over the backline of England, his teammate Lukhanyo Am, knowing his Mapimpi was to his left, confidently passed Mapimpi the ball to carry it over and score for South Africa. This also showed a degree of selflessness and willingness to see your team succeed before seeking the glory for yourself. Lukhanyo could have gunned it for the try-line, but he did not.

R1 Thinking on the Field

“What is the bigger picture/ Why am I doing this?” These questions originate in R1 thinking.

In the post-game interview, captain Siya Kolisi said, “We wanted to show South Africa that we can pull together (different races) when we want to achieve something.” These words speak of a higher purpose and is probably a very strong motivational factor behind why the Springboks brought such strong determination into their game. It is not to say that England did not have a similar determination. It is just fortunate that Siya Kolisi gave us this inside information.

Additionally, as you will see in the next paragraphs about L2 thinking, a team must be committed to their game plan through and through. But there must always be room for improvisation! Going against the status quo is an R1 manner of thinking and it can be the difference between a high scoring game and one that is only won by penalties. Look at the moments of brilliance in the tries scored by the two wings on the South African side. They were set up by intuitive play and converted by moments of out-of-the-box brilliance. It was in these moments that South Africa cemented their win, exemplifying the need to sometimes stray from trying to keep the playing style rigid.

L2 Thinking on the Field

Where would a game plan be if it had no structure? In the game of rugby, ill-discipline and straying from the plan can win or lose the game for your team. When it comes to the rules of the game, a team must have an iron resolve to stick to them. This is an L2 process.

For example, England conceded 10 penalties to South Africa’s 8. That is potentially 6 points difference, a lot to make up for at this level of play. A team is also entirely dependent on the strength of its defensive strategy. Defence in Rugby has everything to do with structure and discipline. If you run too early, you are penalised for being offsides. If you break your defensive line you leave a gap that the attacking team can exploit. At one point in the game, South Africa fended off an attacking England from scoring by mere centimetres. If South Africa had lost their composure in this tense moment and broken their defensive structure, they may well have lost their momentum and the game.

The set-pieces, such as scrums and lineouts, in rugby, are testaments to structure as well. They are fixed structures that need to be predictable and reliable. A front-row doing the scrum must stay within a very specific set of rules and coordinate with their teammates as practised. The same can be said for backline moves.

Gameday is not the day to try out a revolutionary scrumming technique you concocted in the bath the night before! You follow the orders to a tee, “CROUCH! BIND! ENGAGE!” and you hold to your practised technique with all the strength your body can muster. To stray from these is to risk your team being penalised and, even worse, your longevity. People have been paralysed from scrum collapses and most of the rules for scrums are more so there to avoid bodily harm than to test physical prowess.

L1 Thinking on the Field

“Focus, focus, focus.” “Eyes on the prize!” If you drop the ball (?) for a moment at this level, you can find yourself playing catch-up. Likewise, part of staying disciplined is keeping emotions out of the picture. You have to identify your priorities at every stage of the game. For example: is it really necessary to retaliate violently to some unfair play by your opposition? Or can you get them back in another way by, say, winning?

Thankfully this game, in particular, was a good, clean one. But it is very easy to lose your cool or get overwhelmed by the moment in a game at this level. This is of paramount importance to the kickers. Consider how much pressure there could be on a flyhalf who has to take a penalty kick that he knows could be the difference in the end. They would have to be obtuse to not be aware of the 70 000 people watching them (it’s South Africa vs England in the world cup final!) half aching for them to miss and the other half relying on you to kick straight. You would have to block it all out and focus intensely on your run-up, the ball in front of you and your technique.

And what about the 31st player on the field? The referee plays a massive role in the game. They need to reason rationally for 80 minutes, assessing actions in split seconds and weighing them up against the rule book.  Their mindset must be incredibly critical, and for 80 minutes they have to leave their personality at the locker rooms. The referees on Saturday did incredibly well (perhaps some England fans would disagree), but most agree that it was a very well refed game.


As you can see, if the Springboks had been biased towards either one or even two, of these quadrants they may very well have come out second best. Their win was an amalgamation of thinking preferences found across the four-quadrant, whole-brain thinking modal.

On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the referee would have had a left-brained focus as there is no room for reinterpretation or challenging the status quo. He was the status-quo! It is important to remember that nothing ever happens in isolation, however. There were moments in the South Africa vs England game where the referee had to assess intent in relation to rule infringement. In such a case the ref would observe the individual and consider their motives (R2) in deciding the severity of punishment as accidents are punished less severely than a conscious intent to cause harm in rugby.

Do you agree with our assessment of the match? Please feel free to engage with us and tell us where you may agree or disagree.

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