From the Desk of the General

Assorted ramblings of SuperBru's creator, the General.

The Phoenix of Harare

Bigboy Mawiwi rises from the Ashes

“Rooney signs with City.” At the start of the year, his team’s near-triumph in the previous season’s Premier League fresh in his mind, this was the headline that City’s confident manager had hoped to read on the sports pages. But it wasn’t to be, and the failure of the Rooney deal was just a hint of the gloom to come in 2014. And yet, today, it has all turned around. Football brings us remarkable stories, and this is one of them.

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Bigboy Mawiwi

I’m confident that you know I’m talking about the failure of Harare City’s indomitable manager, Bigboy Mawiwi, to sign hot midfielder Ronald “Rooney” Chitiyo earlier this year in the Zimbabwean Premier Soccer League off-season.

I was born in Harare, and spent my first six years there, and yet even with that background I confess I was not majorly moved with excitement when my colleague Hutch said he’d been in discussions with some Zimbabwean soccer sites, and that they were keen to see us run a ZPSL prediction game on SuperBru. Fast forward two months and I can’t get enough news about the Sunshine Boys, as Harare City are known.

It’s been a hell of a year for Bigboy Mawiwi.

In 2013, he was named coach of the year after guiding his team to the brink of winning the Premier League. Ultimately they came third in a points tie on goal difference, with crosstown rivals Dynamos taking the honours, but Bigboy had done exceptionally well. As the sun set lazily across Kariba on New Year’s Eve, forking purple and orange all over the African sky as it disappeared behind Zambia, he must have been burgeoning with confidence for 2014. He’d pick up Rooney, who was looking for a contract after his former team, Monomatapa, were relegated. Then they’d work hard in the off-season, and open the new season with a solid win away against Chicken Inn in Bulawayo. Pundits were already writing about them as championship contenders.

But Bigboy made a fatal error. Tactically—and emotionally, I think—he had all his eggs in one basket: he was so focused on Rooney that he neglected to consider his options if Rooney didn’t see things his way. And the young midfielder didn’t share Bigboy’s vision—especially when Dynamos came knocking.

“I did not manage to get all players because initially we had targeted Ronald Chitiyo and I have to be honest that we wanted him because of his great ball movements and creativity,” said a deflated Bigboy. “I thought his type of play would suit the type that we also play, but unfortunately we lost to Dynamos but we have to move on and we got Benson Maglas and Mqele Sibanda who is equally good and has that eye for goal as well.

“So I think we are now okay,” said Mawiwi.

But they were lacking Rooney’s great ball movements, and they weren’t now okay. Far from it.

Monday headline: Chicken Inn crush Harare City

Chicken Inn didn’t just beat Harare City in the opening fixture, they annihilated the Sunshine Boys 3-0. Bigboy was quick to foist blame onto one of his players.

“It is a bad start,” he said. “In the first 10 minutes Kunyarimwe made a schoolboy blunder and we conceded. We did not have the best of starts. He — and I even told him — was too casual…. We have to respond. Give us time. We are down today by three points and what we need to do is to win the next game.”

The subtext? You have to think that Rooney would not have been too casual.

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It was at about this time, 6,000 miles away, that Bigboy came to the attention of SuperBru HQ. I confess it was his name that first attracted us, but quickly his statements to the press endeared him to us. The comments coming from his mouth could as easily have been uttered by Jose Mourinho, David Moyes or Pep Guardiola—and I’m convinced they’re all using an app which writes a speech for you. Input your team, the opposition, home or away, the result, and auto-generate a speech.

Round 2 saw City scheduled to play United in a massive derby game. In case you’re getting confused, a quick reminder that we’re in Harare, not Manchester…

Monday headline: CAPS United register first win against Harare City

Despite playing at home, the Sunshine Boys lost 2-1 to CAPS United.

“We were in control of this game until we conceded the first goal,” Bigboy pointed out after the match. “But we came back and in the second half we were in control again but we missed a lot of scoring opportunities. Football is about chances. We are going to come good although there are no easy games this year. We will find our feet.”

Monday headline: ZPC Kariba heap misery on Mawiwi 

Evidently a hard week on the training field had not brought the team any closer to locating their feet: they succumbed to new boys ZPC Kariba in a 1-0 affair. Three games into the season, Bigboy’s boys had scored only a solitary goal, and in the ZPC Kariba game, they didn’t register even one shot on goal.

After the ZPC loss, Bigboy opened up his press conference app to issue a range of explanations amidst growing concern from Harare City’s chairman and management team.

First he trotted out the classic focus forward, not backward, viewpoint—and neatly combined it with the durable “no easy games” reminder . “We have to regroup and focus on the next fixture. We have to forget about this result,” he said. “We have a tough game ahead of us and I have always said there are no easy games.” 

Then, like a South African Super Rugby coach, he highlighted the travel factor. “Maybe the game that we played in Bulawayo recently affected us. The long distance, and there was no time to rest,” he said, despite having had two full weeks back in Harare after that match, and Bulawayo not exactly being a transcontinental flight away from the capital (5 hours in a bus would about do it). 

And lastly, he spoke about football being a long game, dropping in the very effective word “process”. “It is a process. We did well last year, I can’t take anything away from that but this is a new season. It takes time,” he said.

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Chairman Leslie Gwindi

By this time, SuperBru HQ had caught the Bigboy bug. We eagerly Googled him daily, looking for new soundbites, and some good news. But there was only bad news. We heard that Bigboy had been issued with an ultimatum: win the next three games, or you’re out. Chairman Leslie Gwindi came out to say that he still had confidence in Bigboy (always a sure sign of impending doom for a football manager). And, like Bigboy’s skin, the plot thickened as cabal of other executives turned out to be conspiring against our man: secretary-general Tarisai Kwenda, treasurer Tendai Kwenda and legal officer Wisdom Gandanzara were reportedly trying to secure Bigboy’s removal.

Some insight into the financial challenges facing the players and the club came when Tarisai Kwenda spoke to the press to say that, “Our policy is that we do not lie to the players. If we promise to pay them on the 45th of the month, that is what we will do, we will not defer until the 54th day. We have got the players’ welfare at heart and there is no problem over remuneration in our team. The results will eventually come.”

I approached SuperBru Strategy and Finance Director, Richaro, to get his take on the peculiar payroll strategy, but he was unable to identify which months had 45 days, and in turn how the players were ever paid their salaries.

But salary issues aside, Bigboy faced three crucial games. Lose them, and he was out.

“This is a time for TCUP,” said Hutch, Commercial and Marketing Director at SuperBru. “If Bigboy picked up the phone to Clive Woodward, he’d instruct him to remain calm, to work the percentages and critical non-essentials, and above all to Think Clearly Under Pressure.”

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Monday headline: Dynamos pile more misery on Mawiwi 

Unfortunately, the first game of the critical three match run was a Sunday afternoon fixture against Rooney’s new club, the defending champions, Dynamos. I followed the game via SuperBru live scoring (which was being handled by Hutch, no doubt telling Mrs Hutch that something important at work had come up). I was encouraged to see the score sit at 1-1 for some time, but was pulled away from the game by a three-year-old’s birthday party. On my return, Hutch let me down gently by text message. “Bigboy’s boys lost 3-1 in the end. They gave everything but were beaten by the better team on the day,” he said, surreptitiously typing one-handed on his phone under the dining room table while feeding his two-year-old son dinner. “They’ll spend the week putting it right ahead of the home clash with the Buffaloes next week.”

Bigboy was honest, but resolute. “Our defence let us down and we were talking about how dangerous Dynamos are on set pieces and we lost the game because of our failure to defend those set pieces. We also failed to deal with their counter attacks. Now we have to make sure we win our next two games,” he said.

Harare City lose fifth game in a row

In the second of Bigboy’s must-win matches, Buffaloes midfielder Tafadzwa Mombeshora was 40m out from goal when he thought to himself, “I’m going to have a go. Why not?” His booming boot sent the ball into the back of the net. Nothing else happened in the match and City went down 0-1.

After the match, Mombeshora said that, “Our game plan was not to concede a goal.” I don’t know much about soccer, but this strikes me as a sensible tactic. The midfielder then astutely added that, “even if they had not scored it would have been a draw.”

Bigboy Mawiwi remained positive, and undeterred, clearly sticking to his belief in his process. “Results will come,” he said. “We remain positive ahead of our next match against FC Platinum. We created a good number of chances today, but the players failed to convert. The players are doing their best and results will come.”

Was the players’ best enough? Even at SuperBru HQ, patience was running thin. “I’ve been backing Bigboy for the win since round 1,” said Richaro. “But this is turning out to be much like my Super Rugby experience, where I pick the Stormers every week.”

At the club, the Kwendas were presumably hoping for another defeat as Bigboy made his preparations for the must-win match against FC Platinum, the richest team in Zimbabwean football.

Harare City crash again

It was a familiar story in Round 6, as City went down 2-1 to FC Platinum. The opposition scored off a controversial penalty, and for once Bigboy’s upbeat demeanour was nowhere to be seen, despite the Sunshine Boys also benefitting from a penalty late in the game. Taking a leaf out of Jose Mourinho’s book, he lashed out at the officials.

"The referee decided the fate of the game. His only decision that went our way the whole match was when he awarded that last minute penalty,” said Bigboy. “It was a genuine but the damage was already done. His officiating frustrated my players. Otherwise had it not been his officiating we could have won this game.”

The Monday after the game was a public holiday in the UK, so it was only on Tuesday morning that we regathered to discuss the dramatic events of the weekend. And as we did so, the inevitable news came in: Bigboy had been fired.

It was one of those moments that you know is coming but is somehow still shocking. I wondered whether I could support a Harare City without Bigboy. We all felt like the ride was over, but an even lower point was still to come. The next day, we heard that Bigboy arrived for training the day after being canned, only to be turned away. At the time, I came out to say, “You have to feel for Bigboy. This is a tough pill to swallow, but I know he will come back from this. I also think he should look to the north, where the Man U job remains open.”

And then, after a true nadir, came a totally unexpected and thoroughly welcome bit of news. Hutch was at home when he read what had happened, and leapt to his feet to grab his phone. Mrs Hutch glanced up with a questioning look. “I just have to tell Andy and the guys something,” stammered Hutch. “It’s a work thing.”

“Huge news coming out of Harare…” came Hutch’s message on our team collaboration messaging system, Slack. “Bigboy is back!”

And would you believe it, the big man was indeed back at the helm of the good ship Harare City. Chairman Leslie Gwindi had clearly put his foot down, presumably quashing the Kwenda rebellion.

Just two days remained for Bigboy to prepare for the next match. The team would be playing at home against Triangle, a team known for their geometric approach to passing. Gleefully, I found out that Triangle’s coach is the only man in Zimbabwean football with a name to rival that of Bigboy: Biggie Zuze. The battle was on… Bigboy vs Biggie.

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Biggie Zuze

The game was scheduled for last Friday afternoon, an unusual fixture time for the ZPSL, and one that pleasingly enabled the crew at SuperBru HQ to follow the game together, rather than furtively exchanging messages on our phones at toddlers’ birthday parties on the weekends.

Hutch, Richaro and I all picked City for a 2-1 win. The rest of the team had lost confidence in Bigboy a while back. We kept a nervous eye on Twitter to follow the game. The first bit of news came in the 26th minute, when Triangle edged 1-0 ahead. It was a familiar story. But then, in the second half, our screens updated… 1-1. James Jam had scored for City. And would you believe it, he was going to score again. The team won the game 2-1!

Richaro was in a meeting through the second half, and when he emerged he could tell from Hutch’s and my faces that something special had happened. “2-1,” I told him, barely able to contain myself. “He won.”

At the press conference, an emotional Bigboy fought back tears.

“It was like winning the championship that we missed last year,” he said. “It was important to end the bad run. I was confident that we would win. We have always been playing well but it was only the goals that were not coming. We need to be calm though and remain focused.”

All that had been missing was the goals! So simple.

Bigboy then gave some insight into the tumultuous week that had passed. “This week has been one of the toughest in my career. There were a lot of disturbances,” he said. “Can you imagine it, when we were training on Tuesday suddenly some thugs arrived at our ground and took away our footballs. Then the next day we couldn’t train as we didn’t have the balls to prepare for this game. I have to thank God and the fans who have been very supportive.”

David Moyes must have felt some empathy as Bigboy went on to say, “I pray that we work as a team from the management, players and whoever is supporting us. This is not my project but we are all Harare City and we need to pull at the same direction.”

To be continued…

While the tide may feel like it has turned, I suspect this is not the end of this story. Will the Kwendas ultimately get their way? Will Leslie Gwindi continue to back Bigboy? Will Rooney take Dynamos to a second successive championship title? How will Biggie Zuze fare at Triangle? And what happens if City lose their fixture next week against the Highlanders (not the team from Dunedin), who are currently second in the league?

Upsets don’t matter in SuperBru

We had some epic upsets in Super Rugby this morning, and you could feel the SuperBru shockwaves reverberating around the world… people on Twitter crying, “That’s it! I quit!” then throwing their phones out the window and pouring themselves a big brandy and Coke, or uttering the quintessentially South African statement, “Ag no man! My SuperBru is in sy moer in!” (if you’re not South African, don’t ask).

But, do upsets really matter in SuperBru? The answer is, largely, no. In fact, it’s the opposite games which matter.

Friday’s nightmare - the gory details

First, a quick recap of this morning’s catastrophe. We started out in Christchurch, with a Speight’s Pale Ale in hand, expecting the Crusaders to beat the visiting Hurricanes easily. But, the Canes, after a pretty dreadful run so far, turned on the afterburners and won 29 to 26 in a high-scoring, offload-laden Kiwi derby. 96% of SuperBru players got this one wrong.

Then, we flew west across the Tasman to Melbourne, picked up a double ristretto magic cup from Baba Budan and ambled down to AAMI Stadium to watch the expected drubbing of the Rebels by the Brumbies. All was going to plan until the second half, when, perhaps inspired by Phil Kearns’s SuperBru pick of Rebels by 2, the Rebs found their game and won the game 32-24. 96% of SuperBru players got this one wrong too.

Only 553 people out of the 159,717 people who picked this round on SuperBru got both results right - that’s just 0.35% of the community.

But, this didn’t prevent an outpouring of emotion and frustration on Twitter:

Woah, nelly!

Why upsets don’t matter

The thing is, SuperBru is a relative game. It’s about how well you do against your pool mates. So if everyone gets it wrong, it doesn’t really matter. And today, in 42% of pools, everyone did get both games wrong, and pool rankings did not change one bit.

This is not to say it is without effect - of course, your overall accuracy will drop, and you’ll have some red icons lighting up in a few places. But by and large, it won’t affect your pool rankings much (in fact, not at all in nearly 10,000 pools this morning). One lucky punk might shoot up a couple of places, but he or she will probably soon be reeled in by the rest of the weekend’s results, and by the remaining 14 rounds of action.

So - stay calm and keep picking. There’s no need to panic when there are upsets!

So what should you fear?

The matches you really need to look out for are not the ones where a handful of people get points (like today’s games). The apparently most dangerous, but least common, are the ones where just about everyone gets points and you don’t. When that happens, your relative position is heavily damaged - everyone else moves up, and you drop.

But, that doesn’t happen very much - most of the time, like today, you’ll be in herd going with the obvious winner, which makes the truly dangerous games the 50/50 matches. If you pick the losing team in a 50/50 game, your pick wasn’t really bad, because 50% of people agreed with you, but the impact hurts.

Here’s a classic example from Round 6. 59% of players said the Highlanders would win, making this a classic danger game. Look at the results in my pool:


Everyone who picked the Canes gets 0, even though it wasn’t a terrible pick. If you’re one of the 9 people who were on the wrong end of the result, 13 people gained a relative boost over you. Compare that to this morning’s upsets, where nobody had any change in position on the leaderboards, and you can see which results you really need to worry about!

Super Rugby is not won in March - or indeed April, May, June or July any more (or ever, for supporters of some teams, as Andrew Mehrtens helpfully pointed out in the Legends pool this morning).

Don’t sweat the upsets!

Fix refereeing mistakes in the moment, not after the fact

Much noise has been made in the rugby and social media following the Romain Poite Incident in Auckland last week. And while South African rugby fans have made a questionable habit of reacting to refereeing errors with online outrage (a factor which pushed Bryce Lawrence to retire from refereeing in the aftermath of his performance in the Springboks’ RWC 2011 quarter-final), the Republic is not alone. Just ask a Welsh fan about the RWC 2011 semi-final red card for Sam Warburton or a Kiwi about the yellow card Wayne Barnes showed to Luke McAlister in RWC 2007. Have a word with a French fan about the RWC 2011 final.

Humans will always make mistakes (and since we make the machines for now, so will they). The game has responded over the years with various means by trying to give them tools to help, but the glaring problem has not yet been solved: however much consequence may follow a game, nothing can (or should) change the result retrospectively. And the result is what matters.

Bismarck’s red card has been removed from his record, the IRB have said Poite got it wrong, and even Poite has said himself that he made a mistake. So, nothing stops Bismarck playing in the next test, but the result remains unchanged - the All Blacks won the test match. The Rugby Championship may have been decided by Bismarck’s 38 minute absence from the field. History has recorded a win for the All Blacks.

The same applies to the Bryce Lawrence fiasco, and every other potentially match-changing refereeing decision.

Nobody is saying the Springboks would have beaten the All Blacks with Bismarck playing a full game (or, a 70 minute game, given the other yellow card). Nor can we say they would have beaten the Wallabies in 2011 if Lawrence hadn’t let Pocock conduct his on-the-ground masterclass. Or that France would have lost if the pass in 2007 was judged forward. That’s not the point. The point is that everyone - players, coaches, fans, pundits, referees - sure would have liked to have had a fair chance to see the outcome of the correct, unaffected contest.

Every South African fan who watched last week’s game feels robbed of the answer to a simple question: can our team beat the world champions in their fortress? If they’d tried their best, unaffected by refereeing, and lost, that would have been fine - at least we’d have known the answer. But we were denied that answer, and that is terribly toxic to the game. It’s even more toxic in world cups, given the burden of history and impact on the career of every individual involved.

I think the search for a solution to this has to focus on finding a mechanism to make sure the question gets answered fairly, in the moment - not posthumously, when that is impossible.

It’s inevitable that referees will make mistakes, given the pace of the game, the intensity of the experience, the baying of the crowd, the pressure from the teams, and the amount of action that one man’s brain must process and judge in real time. A lot of tools have been added to the officiating arsenal to try to improve refereeing quality: the TMO, the upgrading of touch judges to assistant referees, the use of the big screen replay, changes to the laws, training, scrutiny of results, penalties for poorly performing referees (they get time out from big games, which must hurt their pockets and pride), etc.

All of this is good, and has helped, but still does not solve the fundamental problem - if a clear mistake happens, and is not rectified, tainted results will continue to pollute rugby history.

The only solution I see that could give us that in-the-moment correction of a mistake is to introduce a challenge/review system, as has happened in tennis, cricket and, most similarly to rugby, I guess, American Football.

Picture this scenario: the Bismarck rams into HMNZS Carter at full speed of 30.01 knots. The Carter goes down with a gaping hole in its bow. The All Blacks react in fury, and the brawl breaks out. Poite gets that calmed down, then goes to the TMO with the instruction to look for any foul play in the brawl, saying he has already judged the tackle. The TMO comes back to say no foul play anywhere. Poite calls over Bismarck and Jean de Villiers and runs the yellow flag up the mast of the Bismarck, calling the tackle dangerous and high. Twitter spins up an extra 50 cloud servers to cope with the traffic spike of South African rage.

So far, that’s what happened.

But what if, now, Jean de Villiers or Heyneke Meyer throws a red flag on the field as they do in gridiron. The game stops and the South Africans are permitted to request an instant review of that specific decision by the TMO (or some combination of the match officials). The event is reviewed in slow motion glory on TV. Given the subsequent acceptance by all involved that the decision was wrong, I imagine the TMO, with a little more time and distance from the moment than Poite, would have concluded that the tackle was hard, but legal, and rescinded the yellow card.

Too much of this would slow down and gamify the match too much, so you’d restrict each team to a maximum number of reviews - perhaps two?

The TMO, or whoever might judge these reviews, could of course also get them wrong. But at least the affected team would feel that they had a chance to get a correction, and would the time used up really be an issue, given what is at stake?

Rules would apply as to what kinds of decisions could be reviewed - possibly only cards, or cards and penalties?

Something has to be done to address these problems in the heat of the moment, not after the fact when the fundamental impact of a mistake has already been made. Would a team-initiated review system work, or at least increase the percentage of correct decisions, as it has to varying degrees of success in other sports?

 

 

My mum’s SuperBru book

My parents recently came to stay with us, which meant I was afforded a viewing of my mum’s SuperBru Super Rugby book. This book is a truly special and fully working artefact.

First, I guess, you’ve got to understand that whilst my mum is capable with a computer and a cellphone, these technologies have not come naturally to her. She’s a baby boomer. To put things in perspective, on the day she was busy being born on a presumably sunny but possibly blustery day in Camps Bay, 334 American B-29 Superfortresses attacked Tokyo with 120,000 firebombs. On the day I was born in what was then Salisbury, Hair opened at the Biltmore Theater on Broadway. Different times.

When my mum was four, the historical sequence of We Didn’t Start the Fire kicked in. You know: Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio. Part of my life plan is to learn all the lyrics, though it would be neat if Billy Joel could do a sequel to cover the world since 1989, as a bit has happened in the interim.

Anyway, the upshot is that my mum’s technical heyday was the late 70s. She worked at Sugar Sales, an enterprising outfit in what was then Rhodesia dedicated to selling Rhodesian agricultural produce to the outside world despite the sanctions that were in place against Ian Smith’s government. Those sanctions helpfully gifted us with Robert Mugabe, but let’s not get started there.

As I understand it, four key technologies were the foundation of my mum’s job:

1) Pen and paper (and the ability to write in shorthand)

2) The telephone

3) The electric typewriter

4) The telex machine

Telex was a particularly brilliant technology that was something like the equivalent of Whatsapp, just with a big, plugged-in machine instead of a smartphone. I can remember seeing the telex room at Sugar Sales as a little boy - they’d be banging away typing in messages and receiving near-instant responses, all clattered out in ink on a ribbon of paper. I’m fairly confident that her telex expertise is what makes my mum a very effective user of SMS.

But, I think you’d write down everything with pen and paper before heading in to send a telex (bandwidth probably wasn’t cheap) and I think this has stuck with my mum ever since.

When the 70s drew to a disco-saturated close, life changed a bit. The PC revolution of the 80s did not sit that well with my mum, though she did become a reasonably effective user of a Mac in the 90s. 

I don’t presume to judge, because her telexing peak was at about the age I am now, and I can sense I’m on the verge of not understanding the technology the kids use… My colleague Will and I read about a smoking hot app called SnapChat, and thought we’d try it. I installed it, searched for him, made him a friend and prepared to send him some photos that would expire in 6 seconds only to find out that he’d not yet registered and that I’d befriended some random Gen Y out there with the same name as Will. Before my new millennial friend Will sent me a picture of his privates that would expire in 6 seconds (as far as I understand, this is what the kids use SnapChat for), I tried to unsubscribe, found that SnapChat has $60m in funding but no unsubscribe feature (bad SnapChat!), panicked and deleted the app. Might be a sign of age.

Anyway, back to my mum. She’s always been a big SuperBru enthusiast. In fact, she’s the reason Joel Stransky started playing. Back in 2005, I was living with my folks, on hiatus from London, to try to recuperate from a post-viral fatigue syndrome that had knocked me for six. To pass the time, I was writing the early SuperBru. About 70 friends and friends-of-friends were playing. We watched Boots ‘n All on TV, and decided amongst ourselves that the presenters - including Joel - should really be playing SuperBru.

My mum employed Key Mum Technology (2), the Telephone, and phoned SuperSport to ask for the presenters’ email addresses. The person who answered said they didn’t give them out. She said magic charming things. Her interlocutor said oh, ok, well, here you go, here are all their email addresses. I still don’t quite know how this could have happened (how, for example, does the call centre operator at the end of a public SuperSport phone line have presenters’ private email addresses?) but it did. I emailed Joel, and Joel was keen. So, SuperBru fans - respect to the General’s mum.

These days, my mum avidly plays Super Rugby and Currie Cup on SuperBru every year (and generally beats me). But, the online aspect is challenging, and this is where her SuperBru Super Rugby book comes in. Here is an example page:

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What she does is record the fixtures in this book, round by round, in advance. She then marks down her picks by underlining the winning team and putting her margin in the line above (Canes by 6 in the first fixture here). Once a game finishes, she enters the final score, marks her Win Point off with a tick or cross in the left margin, notes Bonus and Margin Points in the right margin, highlights any notable incidents (the Cheetahs beat the Highlanders in Dunedin! Bear in mind that seemed like a surprise at the time…) and sums up her performance at the bottom - and after Round 4, she’s wearing the yellow cap and is tied 1st in our pool.

Isn’t this fantastic?

The astute SuperBru player will note that she effectively has about 80% of our core features, that we have spent years slavishly building and perfecting, neatly produced in paper. And clearly it works for her, as she’s kicking butt.

When it comes time to make her picks, I think she gets my dad (a long-time Mac user) to log in for her and input them - though I’m pretty confident that she would prefer to send them in via telex.

So here’s to the General’s mum, to pen and paper, the telex machine and the B-29 Superfortress. Respect.

Leonid Brezhnev and the forward head wash

I don’t know how much you’re into Soviet leaders, but if, like me, you were born in the 1970s, then the man in charge of the 2nd world at the time (funny how we forget where phrases like 1st and 3rd world originate) was Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev.

Being a history nerd, because my dad is a historian and Mr Lyle at school was an awesome history teacher, I’m currently reading Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which recounts major diplomatic events between 1800 and the early 1990s. We have mixed feelings about Kissinger because he wouldn’t meet my dad to discuss the involvement of the US in Rhodesia, but as books for history geeks go, it’s a winner.

Currently I’m in the Suez Crisis and Hungarian uprising in the 50s, and Khruschchev is pacing about in the Kremlin, ready to rip off a shoe and bang it on a UN desk or build a wall across a city at the slightest provocation. But I know that Brezhnev is coming soon (he ran the show from ‘64 to ‘82 - basically the entire Gen X birth spectrum) and I let myself do a little advance research. I knew that he presided over detente, the arms race and subsequent limitation treaties, the massive expansion of the Soviet military and ultimately the invasion of Afghanistan, but what I didn’t realise is just how spectacular his eyebrows were.

Just take a look at the portfolio of photographs that the wonders of Google Image search provides us:

Pictures of Brezhnev

And in particular:

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Brezhnev’s thinking spot was up and to the middle

I have a slight monobrow, so I can sympathise, but isn’t this thing just beyond spectacular?

And what was Mrs B's attitude towards that glorious expanse of fur? Sure, her husband controlled over 40,000 nuclear warheads that presumably could result in enough megadeaths (not just a seminal 80s thrash metal band, I’ll have you know) to cause the entire planet to sway to the symphony of destruction, but we all know that back at the ranch (dacha?) wives have something to say about eyebrows. Or would he just have nuked her, or denounced her, or taken care of the issue with an ice-pick? I’m a bit out of touch, but that seems to be how the Soviets resolved stuff.

And what about when he went to the barber? I can’t imagine that the post-Cuban Missile Crisis USSR offered up a Toni and Guy style experience like my friend Richard enjoys, with an amusing, talkative cross-dressing Greek Cypriot styling your hair.

I picture it being more like Costa’s and Andy’s. They have a barber’s shop right across the road from HQ. The way it works, you go in there, and a pretty angry Syrian guy forcefully jams your head forwards into a basin to wash your hair. You’re in the basin, face down, with water cascading all around you, trying not to drown, wondering if this experience is at all similar to waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay. It’s dark in there, in the basin, and the Syrian guy with his buzzcut and cutting blue eyes is manfully pounding shampoo that stinks of marzipan into your scalp, and you hate marzipan, you really can’t stand it, and a paper necklace that’s supposed to prevent hair from getting down your shirt is slowly starving your brain of oxygen, and you’re wondering if maybe next time you should go to Toni and Guy, even if it’s going to cost £20 more and you have to book. After the haircut is done, you have to get Mrs General to trim off a few bits here and there and shape it up with the kitchen scissors.  

I’m getting carried away, but you get my drift - I picture a Soyuz-1-era Moscow haircut to be not a dissimilar experience, only with a young, muscular Vladimir Putin giving you the forward head wash instead of the world’s angriest man from Syria. And I don’t think Costa’s and Andy’s would stand for eyebrows like Brezhnev’s. They just wouldn’t. They wouldn’t even offer you the option - they’d pull out a clipper and tame those beasts right back. The offcuts of eyebrow would fall like black rain in front of your face, collecting on your lips and getting sucked up your nose as you breathed heavily, still recovering from the ordeal of the forward head wash.

I guess it’s just testament to the power that Brezhnev held - neither Mrs B nor the barber felt safe enough to try to get the eyebrows under control. 

It’ll be interesting to see if Kissinger brings up the eyebrows in his book. He and Brezhnev met, after all, and surely in person you couldn’t help but be stunned by that which was above his eyes.

image

Brezhnev and Kissinger share a lighthearted moment, with the entire population of the world at stake

I’ll leave you with another standout image from Google Images:

image

Any caption would be superfluous

Bruce Springsteen and the Banda Machine

I’m in a bit of a hearts-on-sleeves US East Coast sort of place right now - Craig mentioned that he’s been listening to the Gaslight Anthem, so I checked them out and I like their sound. They’ve got the gritty edge and energy that I like in rock music, the kind you find in good American music that is largely absent from the UK music scene… living in London, you hear a little non-UK music, but not much, and in the UK we are taught to celebrate musical dullness in all its different guises: epic (Coldplay), delightful and wistful (Elbow), folky-jangly-Gen-Y-F-bomby (Mumford and Sons), appallingly repetitive and soulless (Scouting for Girls) etc.

Also, I’m currently reading Stephen King’s 11-22-63. In King’s On Writing, he says the trick with fiction is to think of two compelling concepts, and to explore what happens when you combine them (it’s wise advice not just for fiction but other endeavours such as businesses). In this case it’s a time travel portal combined with the Kennedy assassination. Sold. King, of course, sets his works as much as possible in his native New England, which is not the New Jersey of the Gaslight Anthem, but it’s close enough, especially as King’s little working towns tend to evoke that blue collar feel.

And back to the Gaslight Anthem: apparently lots of comparisons are drawn between them and Springsteen (the Boss is also from New Jersey, and Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem is reportedly a big Springsteen fan). On Spotify, you can jump from one band to another as quick as your brain can move (in the same way you can get lost in Wikipedia if you have some time and let yourself get sucked in), so for me it was a short hop from the Gaslight Anthem to Springsteen, and now I’m listening to Born in the USA and in a flash I’m back in 1985 at Northway Junior Primary in Durban North and 8-year-old James Barnett is running around the corridors yelling “Born in the USA! I was born in the USA! I was born in the USA… born in the USA!” - or maybe it was “Born in the RSA!” 

I can feel the cloying, comforting humidity of the summer air and see the red brick corridors and smell the sweet, alcoholic stench of the big old banda copying machine they kept in the room at the back of Mrs Morgan’s classroom. I can see us learning about the metric system with trundle wheels going click-click-click around the campus. I can see my plasticine map of Africa, with the relief the highveld and the mountain ranges pressed in by my little fingers. The papier mache bowls we made by layering wet newspaper around the black plastic bases that used to be present on 2 litre plastic Coke bottles.

Above it all there’s Springsteen’s gritty, polished song that was misused as an American anthem when really it was a protest against the way America treated the Vietnam Vets (8-year-old James Barnett might not have picked up on that irony. Or maybe he did). I guess I don’t need Jake Epping’s time portal from Stephen King’s book - the Springsteen is enough to transport me directly to 1985 (a year renowned, after all, for fictional time travel). The guy had a brother at Khe Sanh, fighting off the Viet Cong - they’re still there and he’s all gone. The up-tempo keyboard melody. The staccato drum rolls. The classic 80s fade-out done brilliantly - the song is evolving and changing even as it disappears, leaving you thinking there was more you never got to hear.

There aren’t enough epic fade-outs anymore.

Why Newlands is fuller than King’s Park (a theory)

Super Rugby stadium attendance is an oft-raised topic, especially in years when the Stormers are doing well and often play in front of a full or close to full house at Newlands.

Strong attendance numbers in Cape Town, Pretoria and Brisbane (I guess those are the three that fill their stadia the best? Maybe Christchurch as well?) are often contrasted against poorer numbers in Jo’burg, Sydney or Auckland.

Of particular interest to me, because I grew up there, is Durban. The Sharks command a very loyal crowd, King’s Park is easy to get to, easy to park at and generally a pretty good party. Yet, Durban is known for not filling its stadium. Even the test match against England in June did not pack out the outer, upper curves of the suicidally steep East Stand. But more about Durbs later.

Prevailing wisdom examines rugby audiences on a national basis. We all know that rugby union is the third biggest football code behind rugby league and Aussie Rules in Australia, and that cricket is the biggest sport there besides. While I was in Sydney in May, I went to watch the Tahs take on the Bulls before an average audience (around 18,000), and what was most interesting was the feel of the crowd. It was an elite audience - bankers and lawyers and doctors - not a populist crowd.

So, we tend not to expect big audiences in Australia - except in Brisbane, where (correct me if I’m wrong, Aussies) rugby league and Aussie Rules hold a little less sway than in NSW or Victoria.

New Zealand surprises because they absolutely live and breathe rugby down there. It is without doubt the national sport. Yet, their stadia are often not full (Tank Lanning mentioned that Waikato were still trying to flog 1,200 tickets to last week’s semi-final a few hours before the game).

It’s natural to consider absolute numbers in terms of stadium seats, but not in terms of the supporting population around a stadium. On TV, you see empty seats at King’s Park and you think, “What the hell, Durban? Come on man, get down to the game! Cape Town can, so why can’t you?”

It’s very easy to equate Newlands and King’s Park because they’re pretty close in so many ways. Newlands takes 51,900 and King’s Park 55,000. Cape Town’s population is 3.35m and Durban’s 2.84m (according to the CIA World Factbook). The Stormers and the Sharks are both popular teams with top quality players.

So why does Newlands pretty consistently attract bigger audiences than King’s Park?

I’ve wondered this for many years, and having grown up in Durban and attended university in Cape Town, the answer seemed obvious to me: in my experience, Durbanites tend to be more apathetic than Capetonians. They’re more likely to stay at home and watch the game on TV, or round a mate’s house around the pool/braai, than go to the stadium. 

Durban likes to underplay achievement, and to take life with a pinch of salt. It’s culturally ingrained for the place to feel a bit hard done by because the Nationalist government sidelined this English/Zulu province in favour of the highveld and the Cape for 46 years, only to be followed by a Xhosa-led ANC (in the early days of post-Apartheid at least) that had fought a low-grade civil war against Zulu Inkatha supporters in the province (Sorry, I’m a historian’s son, I can’t help but get carried away with this stuff…) When I moved to Cape Town to attend UCT, it took me a good few months to get out of (a) treating everything with a healthy dose of sarcasm and (b) being surprised that the Capetonians and folks from Gauteng and the rest of the country who I met there were genuinely enthusiastic about stuff at face value.

Anyway, I’m pleased to announce, I think I’m wrong about apathy being the main factor in the King’s Park crowd numbers, especially as it doesn’t add up when you look at the stadium experience, which is basically a big party - braais and music and a great family vibe for a few hours before the game in the practice fields that surround the stadium, and a party with live music, dancing and good times until late in the night after the game (especially if the Sharks win). It’s a famous rugby experience - and that suggests that everyone at the game is not apathetic. So are they the unapathetic minority? No, I don’t think so. 

I went to the Tahs v Bulls game in Sydney with my brother-in-law and a couple of guys he knows, one of whom was Keith Gleeson, a Sydneysider with Irish blood who played flank for Ireland. Keith made a comment that I realise now has taken two months to properly sink into the General’s crowded and ever-slowing brain: looking at the 18,000 strong crowd (Sydney Football Stadium’s capacity is 45,500) he said, “This is a pretty good crowd for the Tahs. The thing is, they should play at a 20,000 seater stadium, not here - it always looks empty here.”

At the time, I thought, “Sure, I know rugby isn’t that big in Sydney because of rugby league”. But what I should have thought is, “What is size of the rugby-following population in Sydney?”

And, last week, this came swimming back out of my murky subconscious as I pondered the Cape Town vs Durban question. We tend to assume that rugby occupies pretty much the same status in all South African cities. But what if it doesn’t? 

What if Newlands is able to draw better crowds because there are more rugby fans in the greater Cape Town area? Wouldn’t that really be the simplest explanation?

So, I’ve done some research and some maths to try put some numbers against this. Some caveats about this:

  • I’ve drawn a whole bunch of assumptions
  • I’ve made some hopefully vaguely fair calculations on the popularity of rugby amongst the genders and language-speaking groups, mostly because this demographic data is available and research on numbers of rugby fans isn’t (to me at least)
  • The numbers that come out the other end have a large margin of error, because this is just a bru theory


Cape Town

The CIA World Factbook has greater Cape Town’s population at 3.35m. How many of these people are likely and able to go to a rugby game?

Language - It’s hopefully fair to say that the city’s English and Afrikaans speakers will be its major source of rugby fans, so I’ve included a high percentage of these citizens and a small percentage of speakers of other languages. This leaves me with 2.34m Capetonians.

Age - I’ve then portioned out the population aged 20 - 60, which I reckon is the core audience for stadium attendances. 1.94m citizens left.

Gender - I’ve made some assumptions on gender. We know that SuperBru attracts 4 males to every 1 female. I need a rough number for how many of each gender are likely to be interested enough in rugby (or the social experience around it) to go to a game. How about 1 in 2 men, and 1 in 10 women? 582,000 Capetonians left.

Availability - a multitude of factors influence whether those 582,000 can go to a game on a given weekend - prior arrangements, transport, finances, work, health - etc. So how about we say that on any given matchday, 30% of that population is able to get to the game? This leaves us 174,822 people as a potential pool of attendees.

Actual attendance - of the available pool of 174,822, not everyone is going to go every weekend, right? If 30% of the pool go to Newlands on a given Saturday, the stadium is full.

Sound reasonable?

Durban

Same exercise for Durban. Bear in mind that the city has very different demographics from Cape Town. Working backwards through the numbers, applying the same assumptions I used for Cape Town, I come to a pool of available, willing rugby fans on any given Sharks matchday of 91,634. To fill King’s Park, 60% of this population needs to go to the game.

That’s double the 30% I calculated for Cape Town. On my admittedly very broad assumptions, Durban has half the number of rugby fans as Cape Town, yet its stadium is 3,500 seats bigger than Cape Town’s. So is it any wonder, really, that Newlands fills more regularly and more easily than King’s Park? 

What about elsewhere?


Johannesburg

By the logic above, Gauteng’s massive population should easily pack Ellis Park for every Lions game. In reality, you can barely see the crowd for all the empty red seats at that stadium. However, I think it’s fair to say that the consistent underperformance of the Lions in Super Rugby combined with the awkwardness of the stadium location and the diversity of support bases in the population (many Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Cheetahs fans live and work in Gauteng) is sufficient to overcome any natural population effect.

This is backed up by Ellis Park generally easily selling out when the Springboks play.


Pretoria

Whilst Pretoria’s population is only 1.4m, in reality, Loftus Versveld is able to draw audience from across Gauteng. Based on SuperBru stats, I’d say there is probably easily a larger physical Bulls fanbase across Gauteng than the Stormers/WP fanbase in Cape Town. They have more transport challenges, but if the Bulls are doing well people generally don’t mind making the trek, and Loftus numbers are generally good.

Australia

We’ve already discussed Australia - by the logic above, the Aussie cities will need an even greater percentage of their rugby union fans to pitch up to fill their stadia. 

New Zealand

Maybe this theory works for New Zealand too. The Cake Tin in Wellington always seems to have lots of yellow seats on show. But Kiwis are rugby-mad, right? So why can’t they fill that stadium? What’s wrong with them?

Well, the population of Wellington is 393,400. The Cake Tin holds 36,000 people. Even if we assume that rugby is 30% more popular amongst Kiwi men than South African men, and 100% more popular amongst the women, that still only produces just over 100,000 citizens in the available pool of potential stadium attendees. More than 1 in 3 of those must attend every game to fill the Cake Tin.

Backing this up

Can we find some correlation for this convivial blather elsewhere?

The TV numbers

Repucom’s stats for TV viewership as shared by Front Row Grunt suggest that a truly epic South African Super Rugby derby can pull 900,000 watchers on TV. A typical derby is around 600 - 700,000. 

How does that fit with my hokey estimates? I’ve got about 900,000 rugby followers in Cape Town and Durban combined (remember I whittle down how many of those can actually go to a stadium on any given matchday). Based on SuperBru relative SuperBru traffic, the rest of the country should inflate that number by a factor of 3.5 giving us a total of 3.15m South African rugby fans. Just under 1 in 3 rugby fans watching a huge derby on TV? Probably about right? 

SuperBru traffic

SuperBru traffic numbers should be a pretty good indicator of the relative sizes of the rugby audiences in each region. 

22% of SuperBru’s South African traffic originates out of the Western Cape, to just 7% from KZN. My demographic numbers above suggest that Durban has half the number of rugby fans as Cape Town, but it could be even more extreme - SuperBru says more like a third. For interest, 63% of our SA traffic comes from Gauteng.

Conclusion

The size of the stadia relative to the size of the rugby watching population of each Super Rugby city is not nearly consistent across the different venues. We should try not to judge a crowd by comparing it to another city, and instead judge it in its own, local, context.

General out.

References

http://www.frontrowgrunt.co.za/2012/07/sa-dominate-s15-tv-numbers/

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sf.html

http://www.elsenburg.com/provide/documents/BP2005_1_5%20Demographics%20KZ.pdf

http://www.capetown.gov.za/en/stats/2001census/Pages/Demographics.aspx

And a little healthy Wikipedia of King’s Park, Newlands, Sydney Football Stadium, Wellington and the Cake Tin

Olympics time! (Taken with Instagram)

Of cowboys and sprinters

A couple of weeks back, @EOY_SA named me their business person of the week, which was very kind. They asked if I had any advice for entrepreneurs, and I said I’d pen an article on that subject on my woefully irregularly updated blog. So here goes.

The Nevado Four Phase Startup Model

SuperBru has been through quite a long journey now, from a hobby I took up in 2003 to an experimental business venture in 2006 to a formalised business in 2010. Between 2006 and 2010, it was an incubated venture at Nevado, a digital ventures and consulting group in which I am a partner. SuperBru is just one of the things we do, and the learnings below come from the collective wisdom of our experiences since 2006.

We’ve found that our ventures go through four phases as they grow and evolve. I won’t go into the details of those phases - rather I’ll focus on the key learning, which is that each phase requires different attitudes, work processes, approaches to risk, staffing, strategies, and decisions. If you bring the approach required for a mature business to a fresh startup, and your venture will never get off the ground - just as if you treat your mature business like a startup you’ll open yourself up to all sorts of unbearable risks.

This is harder than it sounds, especially if you have come from a corporate environment and/or obtained an education like a business degree; both of these will have trained you to think and act like a mature business. When you come to starting your own venture, that mentality could get you into trouble.

The mature business and the startup: polar opposites 

Broadly, I characterise a mature business as one that has:

  • succeeded in defining itself (what it is and what it sells)
  • found a sufficient, sustainable number of customers who want to buy what it creates
  • found proven ways to make itself pay for itself

This business is likely to be slow, risk averse and rigid (don’t think these are bad things - they’re right for the age of the business.)

By contrast, your startup is the opposite. It has:

  • not yet succeeded in defining itself (your business plan doesn’t count) 
  • not yet found a sufficient, sustainable number of customers who want to buy what it makes/does
  • not yet found proven ways to make itself pay for itself

If these characteristics are the polar opposite of a mature business, then so too should be the approach to running the startup. Rather than being slow, risk averse and rigid, the startup needs to be nimble, open to risk and flexible. 

Here are a couple of pointers on how to put this into practice. As you’ll see, they’re all somewhat related to each other - as a general motto the spirit is “try stuff, and see what happens.”

1) Ship, ship, ship!

Get your product or service out there early, then evolve it. Resist the urge to tinker until it is perfect, because you don’t know what perfect is (even if you think you do). The feedback you get from your early adopters and the experience you get from delivering your product will without doubt influence how your product evolves for the better. 

We’ve worked on ventures which have taken years (and lots of money) to build a product, only to find on eventual launch that the product isn’t quite right, or that the market for it just isn’t big enough. And we’ve worked on others (like SuperBru) where we have a constant early shipping mentality. Without fail, the latter approach has proven smarter, cheaper and more likely to succeed - warts and all.

And once you’ve shipped, go ship some more. Keep on shipping and don’t let up.

2) Move at Usain Bolt-like speed

Speed is essential to your startup. I’m not just talking about the speed of shipping mentioned in the point above. I’m talking about the general mentality of the business, particularly with regard to decision-making and work processes. 

You need to make quick decisions. They don’t need to be rash, but they do need to be quick. The startup needs to move as fast as it can to enable it to ship, and thereby to start proving itself. The speed of decision-making generally depends on the number of people involved, and the attitudes they bring. The more people, the slower the decisions, so try to keep your executive team small. And in terms of attitude, you need people who are highly motivated (having equity tends to motivate), aligned with each other and whose mindset is to be nimble, open to risk and flexible. Groupthink can kill a startup, as can a semi-interested corporate investor with different motivations from the entrepreneurs involved. Being aligned is very important.

The speed of work processes comes down to how you decide to work. Try to keep things light, and surround yourself with people who are self-motivating, smart, mature (in attitude, not necessarily age) and trusted. You don’t particularly want to be spending time managing people. And don’t employ procedure for the sake of procedure if all it does is slow you down. Procedure can (and should) come later.

3) Be a (smart) cowboy

This is about risk and about the way you work. Your nimble, like-minded decision-making team needs to be open to experimentation and risk - though in both cases the experiments must be smart and the risks calculated. A stupid cowboy will fail at the startup game just as surely as an intelligent bureaucrat.

In terms of your product or service, try to avoid over-engineering the design and the processes around it. It’s tempting to say “let me build a really robust, future-proof, extensive platform because that’ll save us time, money and hassle in the future”, and all the more so because that’s what common sense, education and corporate experience teach us, and because that’s definitely what we should do in the later stages of a business.

However, the future is a long way away, and, honestly, you don’t even know if you’re going to get there at all. If it means you can define and prove your business faster, take some calculated risks and make smart compromises on the product/service design (especially on the stuff under the hood or behind the scenes that your customers will never see anyway). Don’t fret the bugs and the teething problems, just fix them quickly. When your business has defined and proven itself, you can spend some time gradually evolving things towards that robust platform of your dreams.

Don’t do this forever

It’s a topic for another day, but I’ll sign off by saying that it will generally be a mistake to keep employing the advice above once your business has proven itself and starts growing. Phases 2, 3 and 4 of the Nevado Four Phase Startup Model each demand different approaches - and knowing when to evolve and making sure you follow through on that are often tricky challenges in themselves.

General out.

Much needed today! Come on weekend. (Taken with instagram)