All sporting dynasties that rise will eventually fall. History has proved that it is impossible to stay at number one forever.
The decline can be triggered by a variety of factors. Star players age and their bodies simply betray them. Their reflexes and pace evaporate into the past.
Or the powerful relationships that provide the energy which drives all successful sporting teams begin to sour. This is the root cause for coaches to be dethroned and playing groups to fragment.
It can happen that the major cause of a team’s decline sits far from the public’s view and is within the boardroom. When this crucial space becomes populated by people with huge egos that require constant stroking, high quality long-term planning that underpins every dynasty is abandoned. When this happens the rot becomes truly unstoppable.
It can also be that a significant proportion of the playing group fall to the age-old human condition that success can lead to weakness. A group wallowing in trophies can lose the hunger to do whatever it takes to win.
The first sign of looming disaster is always arrogance. When individuals within the board, coaching staff or playing group begin to believe that they are special and above others, trouble is not far away.
A few years ago, the New Zealand propaganda machine leaked images of the great Richie McCaw, broom in hand, cleaning his team’s changing room. For honest reasons, the New Zealand team had begun to sweep their changing room floor after every match as an exercise in humility.
This triggered a tsunami of post-match broom pushers across the globe. The lesson they all seemed to take from the image was that cleaning the changing room floor could make you play rugby like McCaw.
If only it were that simple.
Players who get above themselves succumb to what is known as the “Rock Star” syndrome. Having a back catalogue of shirtless social media gifs, wearing sunglasses – with a cap on backwards – while inside a building is a very public symptom that a team member has fallen into Rock Star mode.
It can be filed under the old school term of simply going soft. Losing the hard-edged attitude of doing whatever it takes to win. Then the shortcuts begin.
Teams training standards drop and a so-called elite emerge within the group that looks to protect their own status rather than drive high performance standards. This is human nature and not a new phenomenon in team dynamics.
The Roman legion had their own rock stars who were responsible for dropping their group’s standards. The term “decimate” comes from the practice of the centurions voting on who were the 10 worst soldiers in their cohort. After the rigours of a long campaign, these hapless 10 were then summarily executed.
Historical hindsight might best describe it as a harsh but highly effective motivator. It was probably followed with an inspirational message from the commander, informing the troops that the “executions will continue until morale improves”.
Morale within Irish rugby reached a new zenith with the winning of two Grand Slams in one weekend. This was a monumental achievement. Having reached these lofty heights, Ireland now face sport’s most difficult of problems. That is, how to transform winning a Grand Slam into a long-term dynasty while keeping decline at bay.
Going from winning a Grand Slam to lifting the World Cup is a gargantuan task.
A sure method to begin a team’s spiral into decline is to believe that the team has reached perfection. Ireland in 2018 is a perfect example of this. After securing the Grand Slam in March and then beating New Zealand in November, they believed they had all the answers.
In reality, they were already over the hill and sliding down the other side into the disaster that was 2019.
Organisations that are not evolving are not standing still. They are hurtling backwards because other teams are improving and accelerating forward.
While decline and defeat are never far away, the reverse can also be true. Dynasties can be established with the correct appointment of leadership in administration, coaching and players.
There is no greater example than the renaissance we have seen in France since the last World Cup. Just five years ago, French rugby was fractured and disorganised because the welfare of the Top 14 clubs had been given priority above that of the national team.
To the rest of the rugby world, the once great French were now classed as a failed state. After a political battle, new leadership took control of senior positions. They organised and politicised to win the hosting of the 2023 World Cup. They then did battle with the Top 14 clubs for control of the soul of French rugby.
To the great joy of France, and the peril of the rest of the rugby world, they won that battle and have restored the French team’s performance as the number one priority of French rugby.
Fabian Galthie was installed as head coach. He brought in a clutch of technically excellent assistants, who set exceptionally high standards. Then the universe, with the help of the rugby gods, handed France and Galthie the sheer genius that is Antoine Dupont.
Dupont’s sublime and inspirational performances, combined with his phenomenal leadership by example, is driving this French team. Over the next few years, France and Ireland are going to have some awesome confrontations. Later this year one of these encounters may very well determine who wins the World Cup.
The team that continues to maximise their hunger and drive to keep evolving has the chance to create a dynasty.
The loser may follow the tradition of the Roman legions and, in sporting terms, face the decimation of disappointment and defeat.