Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: the resilience of Maro Itoje

Not since winning the 2003 World Cup has English rugby enjoyed a more stunning moment. Their 19-7 semi-final victory on Saturday left the All Blacks’ players strewn on the pitch, dreams of becoming the first team to win three consecutive Webb Ellis Cups dashed.

As well as inflicting New Zealand’s first defeat in 19 World Cup matches going back to 2007, this was the best England performance I’ve witnessed. The All Blacks had dominated the tournament, but could not cope with England’s relentless power, defensive strength and tactical acumen, after Manu Tuilagi’s second-minute try set the tone.

England’s forwards played the collective game of their lives – Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill delivered stunning performances when it mattered most. George Ford kicked four vital penalties and when the inevitable All Black fight back came, England’s tackling, particularly from Underhill, was phenomenal.

From the moment England formed their deliberate V-shaped arrowhead to greet the haka, there was an edge, and the opening minutes saw England’s statement of intent, with a try after just 98 seconds. A stunning attacking sequence ended with Tuilagi plunging over, Farrell’s conversion made it 7-0, and it was seven minutes before New Zealand could get their breath.

It was the team in white who dominated the first half, a 10-0 half-time blank noteworthy as the All Blacks’ first at a World Cup since 1991. Savea 57th-minute try, converted by Richie Mo’unga woke us all up. With just nine defeats in their last 105 matches, would the All Blacks come back? The answer was no. Despite two disallowed tries, two more Ford penalties propelled the English chariot sweetly into next Saturday’s final.

If England have ever produced a better eighty minutes then no-one dancing or screaming around our front room on Saturday morning, refreshed with a copious supply of beer and bacon butties, could remember it. The tension of being ahead from the second minute, the relentless tackles making you grab your own ribs and wince, it was simply a truly great game of rugby.

Maro Itoje had the game of his life, making twelve tackles, winning seven lineouts, and three turnovers. But that does not tell you the half of it. He was a one-man highlights reel. You kept catching glimpses of him, forcing his way through the maul to reach over and wrap his hands around the ball to stop Aaron Smith snapping it out, soaring into the air at the lineout to grab the ball from Sam Whitelock, charging into half a gap, bent double over a tackled man, rooting around with his hands till he pulled up the ball, like some frenzied prospector digging around for the gold nugget he had spotted in the river mud.

Itoje was named player of the match as England’s pack dominated their All Black counterparts. England won sixteen turnovers. No team has won more at this World Cup. Breakdown won, set-piece won, discipline won. England conceded just six penalties to the All Blacks’ eleven. They were faster and they were more precise. They kicked from hand better, and they tackled like their lives depended on it.

Around twenty minutes into the second half, the camera zoomed in on Itoje, getting his breath back at a lineout, chest was heaving, lungs gulping, but the eyes… well, the eyes were something else. They were wide open and staring, bearing an expression that simultaneously implied total aggression and total stillness. He did not blink. Itoje was in the zone of complete focus, the moment of concentration and clarity.

This was his greatest performance in an English shirt, in attack and defence, in open play and at the set piece, in its bravery, discipline, ingenuity and skill. To get a measure of his impact, look at his opposite numbers – Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick were a fraction of their imposing best. These are greats of the game, World Cup winners with 200 international caps between them. Itoje made them look like statues. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, Itoje said last week.

The menace and verve of New Zealand’s potent team was nullified. He gave a technical and tactical masterclass, his performance forged through continuous breakthroughs, small steps and iterations, each possible because he had his eyes and ears wide open in the moment, with the resilience and mindset to keep going.

Putting to one side his rugby skills, it was the resilience shown by Itoje to simply keep going that stood out for me. It is the virtue that enables entrepreneurs to move through their own battles and achieve success. If we have the virtue of resilience, then we can move forward, whatever the challenge.

Many misunderstand what’s at work in resilience. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, expecting to go one better, as Thomas Edison said, I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.

Like Itoje, entrepreneurs consciously choose a life of challenge, yearning success whilst also inevitably encountering times marked by sheer graft, chaos and disappointment. Entrepreneurial endeavour is a series of higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid, but as Sir Edmund Hilary said, People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things, and he should know.

Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, draws lessons from philosophy and history and says if you want to achieve anything in life, you have to do the work, be prepared for knockbacks – but most of all, be resilient. It’s a great book, inspiring us to be bolder and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup.

Here are some quotes from Holiday, which I think say a lot about building your resilient mindset, and could have been written about Itoje on Saturday.

No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses.

See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic, and implement actions to increase success.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in life.

No thank you, I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is walking away. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say no, but that can be the best option.

If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism, observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset, have courage to take decisive action. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Prepare, at the end of the day, for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on.

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Don’t do things just because they’re easy. How do you expect to grow? Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we decide how to respond. Successful, resilient entrepreneurs don’t just accept what happens to them. It’s all fuel that you can use to move forward. It defines you.

Itoje will tell you, you get tackled, you’re hurt, you’re down and the play is now twenty-five metres away. Resilience means getting right back in the game, remaining optimistic in the face of adversity. Resilience is accepting your new reality, but being able to take a step forward when others sit there watching.

Itoje is the essence of persistence, resilience and mental toughness, so take a leaf out of his book. Give it everything, every day, be the last man standing when something needs to be done. Never be outworked, remember that true failure only comes when you give up. Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself. The human capacity for burden is like bamboo, far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.

England played an absolutely incredible game, the stamina, the resilience, they just never let up. Never have I seen an All Blacks team defeated quite like this, they were outplayed, outsmarted, outmuscled. Perhaps it’s time to accept that nothing lasts forever, no one can outrun the sands of time. With the iconic Kieran Read stepping down from All Blacks duty next month, and others including Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Smith, Joe Moody and Sam Whitelock unlikely to feature in the next World Cup in France 2023, maybe this current pantheon of All Blacks greats has reached the end of the road.

Greatness is a hard thing to sustain in any walk of life, but for nearly a decade this All Blacks team has done that. Success can take the edge off soaring ambition, the passing of time perhaps dampens hunger and with it the mindset for repeated challenge. New Zealand have been the epitome of resilience, but now a brighter, younger team, one bristling with unwavering belief, and players like Itoje showing their own immense resilience, has landed a killer blow when it matterred most. Make sure you take a lesson from Itoje for your own entrepreneurial endeavours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>