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Chapter 2: Background and Context

What was the motivation behind this study, and why the sport of rugby offered a representative population of study into the phenomenon of "Teamship".

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  1. Background and Context


The primary research question for this study was “What effects do the personal motivation of individuals in a team have on the group’s cohesiveness in the context of the purpose of its existence?”.  This question addresses problems both in literature and practice regarding the structures and mechanisms that contribute to the cohesiveness of groups and was inspired by the performance of the England Rugby team in 2003 and the importance that the leaders and members of that organisation attributed to the strength of the bonds that existed within the group.  As described in Chapter 3, an examination of the extant bodies of literature regarding group cohesiveness, groupthink and “teamship” identified a dearth of empirical study into these constructs.  The challenges for a researcher to be “in the right place, at the right time”, and to have enough colloquial understanding of the social group being studied exacerbates the challenge of being able to recognise and capture observable and nuanced behaviours and attitudes within a group that influence cohesiveness.  It’s clear that context and external factors impact on the individuals within a group, and the collective itself.

The purpose of this chapter therefore is to provide the reader with a high-level explanation of rugby as a sport and as a social group so that the dynamics and pressures present can be understood.  A summary of the situation, circumstances and achievements of England Rugby from 1997 to 2003 is provided to highlight specific antecedent conditions present at that time for both the group and individuals that may have contributed to the cohesion and efficacy of the group.  The study does not attempt to provide a cross case comparison between England Rugby and German Rugby, and the inclusion of this description of England Rugby is provided to give the reader context and background to the considerations in the research design choices.  

Finally, an explanation of German Rugby from 2007 to 2018 is included in order to provide the important antecedent background influences that are subsequently referred to in the data analysis and findings.  

1.1       Rugby Union


Rugby is a full contact team sport, played between two teams of fifteen players (Appendix B).


International squads such as England and Germany typically invite around forty players from professional clubs to attend training and selection camps, from which a match-squad of twenty-three (fifteen starters and eight substitutes) are selected.  The sport requires high levels of inter-player collaboration, personal courage and commitment as well as whole-team unity and alignment.  This is similar to experiences in high-performing and intense team collaborations in other environments such as medical surgical teams, emergency services teams, or high functioning executive teams; the examples span every aspect of life and social endeavour.

At an organisational level, the playing teams require extensive coaching, medical, logistical and administrative support.  Success requires tight integration and alignment for all elements of the playing and back-room staff.  When considered at the level of the national unions, a recognisable corporate structure is normal with functions extending from Chief Executive Officer (CEO), to finance, Human Resources (HR), marketing, sales, legal, information technology (IT), and so forth.

There are two main versions of the sport; ‘XVs’ which comprises teams of fifteen players, and Sevens (‘7s’) comprising teams of seven players.  The XVs version of rugby is the more commonly recognised version of the sport and games comprise two halves of forty minutes each.  Across the world there are professional domestic leagues and competitions, as well as regional international tournaments between country teams.  XVs was an amateur sport globally until 1995, when the international governing body of the sport - now known as ‘World Rugby’ (WR) - voted to professionalise the sport, allowing players to be paid as full-time employees. 

In Europe the annual regional international competitions for XVs are known as the ‘Six Nations’ (tier 1), ‘Rugby Europe International Championship (REIC)’ (tier 2) and ‘Rugby Europe Trophy (RET)’ (tier 3) tournaments.  At the time of this study, the competing nations were: Tier 1 - England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.  Tier 2 - Belgium, Georgia, Germany, Romania, Russia and Spain.  Tier 3 - Holland, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Ukraine.  Every four years a global international tournament is held, known as the Rugby World Cup (RWC).  In 2019 this tournament was held in Japan over a period of eight weeks of competition between the top twenty nations worldwide.  Qualification for nineteen of these competition places is based upon global rankings of national teams; the final place is awarded as the outcome of a ‘play-off’ tournament called the ‘Repechage’ between the four nations occupying global ranking positions of twenty through twenty-three.  In 2018 the Repechage competition was held in Marseille, and competed for by Hong Kong, Canada, Kenya and Germany.  The winner earned the twentieth spot for the RWC19. 

As can be understood from the descriptions above, rugby is a complex sport requiring significant organisational and financial support on an on-going basis.  The nature of the sport means that individuals are at high risk physically, and the need for exceptional levels of unity and collaboration is paramount for both safety and success.  In order to compete safely and meaningfully, players must show high levels of personal commitment to the goals of the organisation; misalignment of the individual with the group or the organisational goal undermines organisational efficacy and puts others at risk.  The extent of the managerial and fiscal demands is comparable with many other business or non-sports organisations of all types.  The nature of the international competitions means that whole squads as well as all coaches and support staff travel and function together for long periods of time, sharing working, living and social environments, often under considerable pressure.

The problem that this study seeks to explore is the gap in empirical research regarding the understanding of group cohesiveness as an emergent state in teams, and the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and group purpose on the structure and function of team formation.  It is therefore important to view a rugby team not simply as a sports team, but as a complex and diverse social group comprising multiple demands and agendas, and with an array of both competing and complimentary needs across a broad portfolio of stakeholders and participants who must be working in concert in order to meet the objectives of the organisation. 

1.2      England Rugby 1997 - 2003


The phenomenon that inspired this study was the winning of the RWC in 2003 by England.  This section provides a brief summary of the six years leading up to that success, highlighting specific events that affected unity, and both personal and collective efficacy (Shearer, 2015) of the organisation and its members during this time.  The relevance of this information is to provide the reader with context and indications of antecedent factors that were present in the squad that went on to win the RWC.  Whilst this section is specific to England Rugby, the personal, organisational, social and cultural considerations find parallels in many organisations tasked with improving organisational performance, collective efficacy, group cohesion and member engagement.  Appendix C provides further history of England Rugby.

Since its inception, England’s performance at the RWC had caused frustration for the England Rugby establishment (Rugby Football Union, 2004).  The team failed to win any of the first three tournaments, achieving a quarter-final, final and semi-final position in the 1987, 1991 and 1995 respectively, despite the fact that England was by far the best-resourced of any nation globally (domestic clubs, players and funding).  These failures created significant pressure on the head coaches and their staff, as well as on the players.  As a result of this and the failure of the incumbent coaching leadership to affect appropriate changes from amateurism to professionalism in 1995, the RFU appointed a new head coach in 1997 – Clive Woodward (Woodward, 2004).  Woodward was a relatively inexperienced head coach with no senior international coaching experience, but he had generated significant domestic success in tier one and two rugby in England, primarily through implementing highly innovative thinking and approaches to training, tactics and team preparation.  He had played rugby for England earlier in his career, as well as for the British Lions (Woodward, 2004).

Woodward’s first tour with his England team was to Australia in 1998, which became known as the “Tour from Hell”; three international test matches resulting in three defeats, one of which was the largest defeat ever suffered by an England team (Greenwood, 2004; Woodward, 2004).  Woodward, his coaches and the players were all subject to significant public criticism and abuse.  However, Woodward viewed the tour as a learning experience, maintained trust and belief in his staff and players, and in his own approach and plans (Woodward, 2004).  In the Five Nations tournament of 1999 England performed well and were poised to win the tournament but conceded a try in the final moments of the final match against Wales, depriving them of a tournament victory.  The depth of disappointment and criticism was once again harsh and painful for the entire organisation.  Later that year in the RWC 1999 England under-performed once again, suffering a heavy defeat by South Africa in the quarter finals.

It can be understood from this summary of the first two years of Woodward’s reign as Head Coach that the squad had experienced disappointment and criticism as individuals and as a team.


However, Woodward maintained his vision and strategy to become the number one ranked team in World Rugby.  He consistently defended and protected the team and the individual players and urged the squad and players alike to focus on the vision and the route to achieving it. Woodward created an ‘esprit de corps’ within the squad and established a squad identity and culture that was independent of the RFU (Woodward, 2004).  He implemented values, behavioural standards, and consequences for membership of this elite group that were co-created and enforced by the players themselves, but which then became the ethos by which the squad conducted itself; these were known as the “Teamship Rules” and were documented and signed by every squad member when they initially joined the organisation (Figure 2.2.1).


Figure 2.2.1       “Teamship Rules” (Source: Woodward and Walters 2003)  

It can be seen therefore that Woodward had created a unique identity for the England Rugby team, which was exclusive, distinct and separate to the RFU.  He leveraged the failures and hostility towards the group to create an insulation from outsiders and used senior and established players within the core squad to create and enforce a culture.  In so doing, he generated a ‘siege-mentality’ within England Rugby and layered upon this a clear vision and strategy for a future state.  These antecedents have much commonality to those described in Groupthink Theory (Janis, 1983).

Over the following three years England began to secure continued – and increasingly dominant – success over all teams globally, achieving Woodward’s goal of becoming world ranking #1 in 2002.  The performance of this squad was underpinned by the stability and consistency in the playing and coaching staff over this time and the alignment of the individuals to the vision (or ‘purpose’) of the England Rugby team.  This period of success and achievement was finally capped with victory at the RWC2003, where England beat Australia in the final, winning the game in the last seconds of extra time.  This epitomised the exceptional levels of alignment, commitment and understanding between the players and the coaches, based on the deep-rooted culture of standards, selflessness, teamwork and effort of every individual in the organisation.  There existed an individual and collective resilience built over many years, combined with a cohesiveness within the group to the group purpose, to each other and to the England Rugby organisation.  

Woodward described this phenomenon as “teamship”.  His subsequent definitions of “teamship” are however inconsistent and vacillate from a “style of leadership” (Woodward, 2004:219), to a “set of behaviours and standards” documented in a rulebook (Woodward, 2004:310), to “the ability to work together as a team” (Woodward, 2004:309), to a “model of operating” (Woodward, 2019:73).  It is this confusion that has inspired this study; ascribing ultimate team efficacy to an apparently new social construct attracts significant practitioner and researcher attention, but the lack of consistency in explanation, nor an understanding of the structures and mechanisms that contributed to exceptional group cohesion is problematic.  Practitioners seek a formulaic method from which they might be able to replicate the success in their own applied environments.  Researchers seek insight that might locate the construct within the existing bodies of knowledge regarding group performance and social interaction.  Unfortunately, without examining the structures and mechanisms that emerge in groups functioning in such antecedent conditions as they evolve the potential contribution to understanding and knowledge is limited.  The outcome of Woodward’s endeavours and leadership may provide clues, but to understand the social interactions and influences that contribute to high levels of group cohesiveness, it is necessary for a researcher to be immersed in such an environment and to both experience and consciously observe the dynamics at play.

1.3      German Rugby 2007 – 2018


The German Rugby Football Union in German is the Deutscher Rugby-Verband (DRV).  For the remainder of this thesis reference may be made to the DRV or German Rugby interchangeably.  The detail included in this section is necessary to understand the self-motivation and group dynamics that were existent at the beginning of the field-work stage.

German Rugby was selected as the target for this study as it stood at a unique point in its history, driven by circumstance and good fortune.  However, in summary, with only three months’ notice, in the summer of 2018 WR invited the German Men’s XVs team to compete in the RWC19 Repechage tournament against Canada, Hong Kong and Kenya.  The prize; to qualify for the RWC19 tournament in Japan.  At the time of the invitation, German rugby was in crisis with loss of funding, a players’ strike, and deep divisions between the squad and DRV executives.  WR nominated an experienced international coach to take over as Head Coach for the squad and attempt to prepare them for the tournament.  This coach identified problems regarding interpersonal relationships and cohesion within the team and requested the support of a dedicated expert in teams and mental excellence.  The new head coach approached this author to become a member of his coaching team, also agreeing to the academic research purpose of this DBA study.  It was this unique set of organisational circumstances and goals that made this case an ideal sample from which to observe and influence the mechanisms that contribute to group cohesion.  A more detailed history of German Rugby is provided in Appendix D, including recent history which has relevance regarding the dynamics within the squad for the duration of this study.  


From a review of the recent history in German Rugby it can be seen that - similar to the England team (1997 – 2002) - the German XVs squad had experienced public and personal criticism, disappointment and hardship, isolation from and conflict with their parent organisations, and repeated failure.  The inclusion of Germany to the RWC19 Repechage tournament represented a unique opportunity to form a team in a very short period of time.  The head coach appointed to lead Germany had been a coach with England through RWC07 and understood the requirements of the players and group to have any chance of success.  Many antecedent conditions existed with the German XVs group that were consistent with those of England prior to 2003.  For these reasons it was determined that this sample had the potential to give insight into the phenomenon of “teamship” and the impact of group purpose and personal motivation on group cohesiveness.

The literature review examines areas of theory that relate to the group and individual processes that may be relevant in the interpretation of field-based observations.

Teamship rules 2.2.1.jpg

Figure 2.2.1       “Teamship Rules” (Source: Woodward and Walters 2003)

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