Create a differentiated “playing model”, like Japan’s rugby heroes

I was one of several million people screaming from my sofa last Saturday, as Japan's "Brave Blossoms" (13th in world) beat South Africa's  Springboks (3rd in world) 34-32 in the Rugby world Cup. Japan had one solitary World Cup victory in 24 games until this week, and that was 24 years ago. In contrast, South Africa are double World Cup winners, in 1995 and 2007.

Was this just a stroke of amazing luck? I don't think so. Rather, it was a great example of "playing model innovation", which has lessons for business.

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1. Leverage your strengths

One key to success is to focus on being brilliant at the things your good at, rather than worrying about your weaknesses, as I posted on here. Japan were much smaller and lighter than South Africa, who on average were almost 10% heavier. This meant that taking South Africa on head-to-head in a physical power battle was unlikely to be effective. Instead, Japan worked on their fitness and played at high tempo, helped by being what looks like one of the fittest teams in the World Cup. They ran "with angles and pace that cut the Springboks open", as covered here. And this strategy was a long term plan, with coach Eddie Jones first move on arriving in 2012 being to "encourage the Japanese to play their own style", according to this report.

2. Neutralise your weaknesses

Focusing on your strengths does not mean ignoring your weak points. Rather, you seek to reduce or neutralise them. Japan are a small team, which means the line out should be a weak point. This is where the ball is thrown in between two lines of players, who jump to catch the ball. Eddie Jones hired one of England's top line out experts, former England captain Steve Borthwick, to train the Japan team. He helped them achieve at least parity in the line out though smart tactics and practice on technique, including lifting your catcher. See the example below, where Japan's captain Michael Leitch out-jumped giant Eben Etzebeth (number 4), who is 14 cm taller.

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A similar approach was used for Japan in the scrum. This is the bit where your eight biggest players, the forwards, try to push each other backwards to win the ball. This should have put Japan at a huge disadvantage, but again they came up with a smart tactic. After the ball came in (see player 21 below about to roll it in between the two sets of players), they quickly "heeled" the ball to the back of the scrum and out, before the South Africans could get their shove on.

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3. Seek inspiration from outside your market

We recommend on projects that team look for inspiration beyond their direct competitors. And this is what Eddie Jones did with Japan. Only watching videos of South Africa and other leading nations play rugby got him only so far. So he also consulted Pep Guardiola, soccer coach of Bayern Munich and before that Barecelona, to learn about his playing style and tactics.

4. Passion and belief
Japan's famous victory was also helped by an incredible sense of team belief, passion and commitment. Japan played through phase after phase of lung-busting rugby in the dying minutes of the game to win. They even had a chance to kick an easy penalty goal and score the three points needed for a famous draw. But instead they backed themselves to go for the five points of a try needed for victory. Rugby fans or those interested can watch the amazing final five minutes of the game below (from 9"35 onwards), or here

"Team building" exercises are often used by companies in the business world, and perhaps some "challenger" brands will try to use such activities to give them en edge. However, these will only be effective if, like the Brave Blossoms, passion and belief are used to deliver a differentiated "playing model", as described above.

In conclusion, the Brave Blossoms famous victory has shown the power of a differentiated playing model combined with a culture that instils passion and belief. Tomorrow's game against Scotland will show whether Japan, after a cruelly short four days rest, can use this model to deliver their third World Cup win.