The lockdown offered an opportunity for the club to delve into its little black book and launch its own podcast. Prominent among the guests were the alumni of the 2015/16 season with Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald, Chey Dunkley and Johnny Mullins all featuring.
One of the recurring themes that came from those interviews was Michael Appleton’s obsession with the book Legacy; an analysis of The All Blacks dominance of international rugby, a book he himself referenced on the For the Love of the Game podcast. So what’s it all about?
Spend any time around executive training and you’ll eventually hear a management consultant quoting Tom Peters as though they’ve discovered the lost sea scrolls and not someone whose book sales rank alongside JK Rowling. Management advice is everywhere, and in reality, most centres on sugaring the pill of recurring lessons to make them palatable for their intended audience. Legacy is mostly a compendium of standard management tropes shone through the lens of the compelling story of the All Blacks, one of the most famous and successful teams in the world.
The book doesn’t quite dive to the heart of the All Blacks’ success – direct quotes are limited, it’s more an observers view, which makes for a more clinical read. That said, perhaps the heart of their success is less mystical than people would like to perceive. Sport is full of talk of ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ whereas success is often drawn from structure and process; that’s a key message here.
The All Blacks do have a bit of a head start, they’re massively well funded and revered, finding more money and resources to do more things is, perhaps not easy, but not that hard.
The story starts with the relative failure of the All Blacks quarter-final defeat to France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. By this point the squad was consumed in its own self-importance; poor discipline and unprofessional behaviour could be explained away because they were the mystical and untouchable All Blacks. But it was rotten and underperforming. There was disillusionment within as well, the whole concept of being an All Black was becoming a reality TV show; even doing the iconic haka was a meaningless chore.
If there’s a parallel, and Michael Appleton has spoken about this, the Oxford team he inherited in 2014 was a ragtag of grafters. Chris Wilder’s ambition had been stymied by a lack of investment and slowly the team was decaying, what he was achieving was remarkable, but still moderate. There’s an entertaining edition of the official podcast with Michael Raynes and Tom Newey, where they discuss the life of a workaday lower league pro; the game is about looking for another contract, creating the illusion of being in demand when in reality they’ll go anywhere that pays. By 2014 any significant ambition at the club had gone.
Appleton talks about inheriting a squad full of players who had experienced relegation, and the general acceptance of that being part and parcel of being a lower league pro. As a result he set about transforming the culture with Legacy offering a template.
A lot of what you’ll have heard on the podcasts is lifted directly from the book. The most compelling was the All Blacks’ idea of ‘leaving the jersey in a better place’, which was particularly evident in the recruitment strategy employed under Appleton. The club was no longer for the Neweys and Raynes’, pragmatically picking up another contract before moving on. The players Appleton wanted saw beyond that; he wanted players who would improve themselves by investing everything in the shirt and the club. The likes of John Lundstram, Kemar Roofe and Ryan Ledson invested heavily in the club, making a personal step forward before passing their shirt onto the next recipient. Quite literally, the number 4 shirt was held by Michael Raynes in 2013/14, who passed it onto Kemar Roofe, then to John Lundstram. The shirt – the purpose of a player being at the club – being left in a better place, creating a legacy.
Lundstram passed it onto Mike Williamson.
There are other ideas – a devolved management structure where a group of leaders were created from the squad to keep the group in check and resolve its own problems. It meant that the culture wasn’t reliant on a single person and that the team owned their issues and more importantly, the solutions. Jake Wright was at the heart of it, and you’ll hear his name come up regularly as a driving force in the club. But also, there were players like Sam Long – younger and on the margin of the squad, but local and perhaps closer to the fans with a better sense of what the club was about. There is clearly a lot of support for Long at the club even now, despite injuries, the club have stuck with him, which clearly paid dividends last season.
Another driving principle was a ‘no dickheads’ policy; a rehashing of the adage that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, FIFO is another articulation – ‘fit in or fuck off’. ‘No dickheads’ is simply not allowing disruptive influences to infiltrate the squad. No matter how good a player might be, if they behave at odds with the culture of the whole, they move on. Alex MacDonald let slip that ‘Armand’ (Gnanduillet, presumably) was a player who fell foul of the policy. It might be reasonable to assume Dan Crowley was also in that camp and perhaps even Liam Sercombe in 2017 when he rapidly fell out of favour after the JPT Final. Even MacDonald himself was moved on when, by his own admission, he let his standards slip. It’s not a reflection of the individual, but their compatibility with the driving culture. It’s an unforgiving environment, but you can’t deny its success.
There’s little doubt that Legacy provides an insight into the culture instilled by Appleton at Oxford. He was well supported financially, but there was a depth to his work, which is often overlooked. We’re still benefitting from it now.
It did make me wonder whether the fans have a similar culture. The All Blacks have is an evolving rule book which every player gets, it describes what being an All Black is, and how to behave. It’s part of ‘improving the jersey’. Imagine a club where the fans are committed to improving the club for the next generation, imagine what it could achieve. There’s another concept explored early on: ‘cleaning the sheds’, never being too big to do the small things. After every game the All Blacks clean their own dressing room before leaving. It plays to the idea that your value is in what you leave behind – a tidy dressing room, as well as an outstanding performance, being the legacy of an All Blacks visit – far more impressive than a mess and a loss. Can you imagine not only walking away from the County Ground with three points, but with absolutely no reason for Swindon fans to complain about you because of how you behaved? That would drive them mad. The atmosphere created by the fans during 2015-2017 was phenomenal, as good as any in the country, particularly when you consider our size, but sadly it hasn’t been sustained which is a shame; perhaps the fans could think a bit more about their own legacy.