The power of a counter narrative won the Rugby World Cup


Sporting triumphs are inevitably followed by the backstories of pain and sometimes insurmountable odds or self-sacrifice.

While the Springbok Rugby World Cup victory in Japan had all of this and more, it had something else truly special to which all marketers, communicators and leaders should pay careful attention.

The Springbok victory came about because of the power of a counter narrative to change a mindset.

There were lots of significant, emotional and moving backstories e.g. the Springboks were playing for 57 million South Africans rather than themselves; Siya Kolisi was the first black captain who came from abject poverty and, through hard work, achieved the unthinkable; diminutive winger, Cheslin Kolby, who scored the final try to put the nail in the coffin of the English, grew up in a gang-infested area, and the stories go on…

However, they are not the reason the Boks won the William Webb Ellis trophy.  

Instead, what won it for them was a brilliant, counter narrative from coach Rassie Erasmus. The Springboks lost their first-round match to the all-conquering All Blacks. Statistically no team had ever lost a match in the first round and won the World Cup. But what followed was a masterstroke. Coach Erasmus changed the perceptions of the entire squad by changing the narrative about pressure and thereby creating perspective and a higher purpose for the team.

The counter narrative which won the Boks the Rugby World Cup.

So, what did Erasmus say that profoundly changed the psychology of his squad? He simply posed a counter narrative. He changed the pressure on the players in a World Cup environment to what real pressure was back home – the pressure faced everyday by the Springboks’ fellow countrymen, women and children.

‘The Rainbow Nation’ is a term attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But for many in South Africa those vibrant colours have faded and been replaced by a list of inexorable, and some would say, intractable, problems. All Erasmus did was contextualise the pressure the Boks were feeling against the much bigger, real-world pressures of their fellow South Africans back home.     

In a post-match interview, Erasmus said: "We talked about what pressure is. In South Africa pressure is not having a job. Pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered.

"There are a lot of problems in South Africa – which are real pressure. Rugby shouldn't be something that creates pressure, rugby should be something that creates hope. We've got the privilege of giving people hope… the moment you see it that way, it becomes a hell of a privilege – and that's how we tackled this whole World Cup campaign."

And in that moment with that brilliant counter narrative, he helped fundamentally shift the thinking of his team and set them on a course which saw them win the Rugby World Cup for the third time in 24 years.

There is plenty of evidence in our history books of how the power of a counter narrative has given people hope, purpose and courage. And that’s what happened at this Rugby World Cup.