What is the difference between a good player and a bad player?
Often it comes down to one simple thing, taking responsibility. That is taking responsibility in all facets of the game, taking responsibility when you make an error, taking responsibility to be the one to tidy up an error, yours or someone else’s, and taking responsibility to be brave and to make the correct decisions under pressure.
Perhaps that sense of responsibility being the difference is best shown in the pattern that led to England lifting the Rugby World Cup in 2003.
First there was Martin Johnson taking the decision to put a penalty into the corner. Then came Ben Kay taking responsibility and telling Steve Thompson to throw to Lewis Moody at the tail, despite Thompson having some difficulties that day hitting his man. Kay took the responsibility, telling Thompson that he, Kay, was to be blamed if it went wrong.
Thompson then took the responsibility of nailing that throw though, for no matter what anyone says before, as the hooker you know that you have to hit that man.
Next up came Mike Catt. Catt was many great things on a rugby field, but a powerful gainline buster he was not. However in this crunch moment he took that responsibility of hitting the gainline and making those painful but crucial yards for his team.
Then up popped Matt Dawson. He would have known that it would have been crucial for him to stay available at the base to deliver the ball to Wilkinson, yet in that moment he took on that extra responsibility, sensing that more yards were needed and burrowing forward for those extra few metres.
Of course that left Neil Back standing over the next ruck, the man who would have to deliver that final pass to Wilkinson. He was there, ready to take responsibility, only for perhaps the defining act of taking responsibility on a rugby field saved him from having to make that pass as Martin Johnson saw that Back would have to make the pass a simply demanded the ball in order to set up another ruck, allowing Dawson to free himself.
Few moments have ever epitomized taking responsibility on a rugby field as much as that. Johnson could’ve though ‘let’s get this to Wilko, I don’t want to drop it’ or any one of a number of thoughts that cross your mind in a high pressure moment like that. Instead his process was simple – ‘no, that’s the wrong man to deliver the pass, I need to take it upon myself to set this up properly’.
From that Johnson inspired ruck, Dawson was free, and again showed the sort of decision making that epitomizes taking responsibility under pressure. He dummied picking up the ball. It was not much, but it forced Australia onto their heels, buying Wilkinson the extra half a second to get the ball over the posts. And in Wilkinson, of course, there is a man who knows nothing other than to take responsibility. Indeed with him perhaps the issue was he often took on too much responsibility.
In that one passage of play though, from lineout to drop goal, you have several examples of people stepping up under pressure to take responsibility. Sometimes it is about doing something to fix a problem, sometimes to help a teammate, sometimes it is simply doing your job or what you are told and executing it perfectly under extreme pressure. Either way, without those individual cogs, that kick never even gets taken, let alone goes over.
Taking responsibility turns an ok player into a good one, get lots of people taking responsibility and you turn a decent team into one that consistently performs and wins under pressure.
Look at the All Blacks this week. Aaron Smith was suspended for a week due to his dalliance in a public toilet. Not by the Union though, or by his management, no. Smith was suspended by his teammates, and they were trusted to because over the last eight years the All Blacks have fostered a culture of individually and collectively taking responsibility. The management did not need to dictate, because they knew the players, including Smith, would take responsibility.
That is why a team that has always been good, and always had a skill gap to the rest of us, is now a team that is great and has been for two World Cup cycles now.