Total rugby and the future of work
The futurists are hailing that the “the fourth industrial revolution” is upon us, a time where robots will take over predictable and routine tasks in our jobs. It’s important we have a game-plan in place to make the most of the transition rather than be left behind.
Generalisation is the way of the future
It is true that many jobs face obsolescence, and our policies must soften this blow, especially for those in lower-skilled roles. But there are also opportunities, with technological advances creating new roles, if we are set-up to take them. While I wouldn’t usually leave labour market and skill development policy to rugby players and coaches, we can gain inspiration from the trail-blazing way the All Blacks led their own revolution, and subsequently, the world.
The All Blacks have dominated world rugby for decades precisely because they play nothing like robots. Where increased specialisation was the key to success in the last century of work, generalisation is the way of the future. Their sheer versatility—with each player fulfilling many roles and adapting to conditions on-the-fly, was key. Sports historian Tony Collins says their success is because their “skill set has perfectly matched the modern game and given them an advantage over teams that don’t have that skill set (e.g. forwards who can handle and distribute well).”
The All Blacks have dominated world rugby for decades precisely because they play nothing like robots.
Their success helped define the modern game, resting on the ideas of rugby coach Jim Greenwood’s book Total Rugby. Writing in a context where each position had traditional and specialised roles, Greenwood promoted a kind of “open, ebullient” rugby where “every player is equipped to plan an active role as attacker, defender, and supporting player.” He also emphasised judgement, the ability to think on one’s feet, rather than relying on set-plays or sticking strictly to a well-drilled game-plan. Some specialisation is necessary—agile footwork for wingers or heft for forwards for example—but all should be able to pass, tackle, ruck, and develop their decision-making.
Employers are already looking for people with a versatile skillset like this—for All Blacks of the workforce. We need to shift the way our development, education, and training systems work. For parents, it means giving children a range of experiences—rather than the traditional idea of 10,000 hours drilling the same sport or art for example—give them opportunities to play different ones. For educators, it means exploring “soft” skills development, looking broader than a STEM-focussed education, and improving links with employers. For workers, seeking short bouts of training and re-training become critical to become or stay relevant to a changing world of work.
Rather than going for a win, the tactic is to minimise risks to avoid losing
Greenwood calls the alternative to total rugby “play-safe” rugby, where rather than going for a win, the tactic is to minimise risks to avoid losing. It is not only dull to watch, but denies players “the preparation that would develop their talent, and the opportunity to use it.” Playing safe with our workforce means continuing on the same specialised path of skills development that we always have, but this will result in an inevitable loss. Instead, we should aim to again lead the world in skills development.