The Rugby World Cup: An embodied feeling

The Rugby World Cup: An embodied feeling

The 2023 Rugby World Cup is done and dusted – and South Africa has emerged victorious. Our expert columnist, Brian Darlington, says that rugby and health and safety in the workplace have much in common.

Four years have passed since I watched the Springboks be crowned World Champions for the third time, equalling the record of the mighty All Blacks. Four years on, I have just spent two weeks in Australia and New Zealand, with our children and grandchildren.

In both countries there was hype about the World Cup. Whilst in Australia, however, they lost to Fiji and Wales, so there was not much hope of advancing in the competition. Arriving in Auckland a week later we still felt the excitement, although New Zealand had lost their opening game to France. We constantly saw supporters wearing the All Blacks jersey – unlike in Australia, where nobody was wearing their jerseys.

Heading back to Europe, we spent a night at home and then with great excitement flew to Marseilles, France, to watch our beloved Springboks take on Tonga in their final pool game.


Waking up on the Sunday morning there were some fans at breakfast in Springbok jerseys, and one couple wearing the Tongan jersey. There was a bit of friendly banter, with all being proud of their team and their country. The number of people wearing Springbok jerseys in the city centre was unbelievable.

Later, heading off to the stadium, I decided to wear an original jersey given to me years ago by the late, great Ruben Kruger. I wore it with pride; some fans even offered to buy it off me, but there was no chance!

Entering the stadium, national flags were flying around the ground. Seeing the South African flag brought on this strong sense of belonging, even though I emigrated to Austria 19 years ago. Banners sporting text, signs, and symbols – all with some sort of significance – brought the individuals waving them some sense of belonging.

When the teams lined up in front of the main grandstand, one could see how united they were and how they belonged to a single team. It reminded me of the Springboks’ slogan in 1995: “One Team, One Country”.

Watching the Tonga team do the Sipi Tau – their pre-game war dance – prior to the start clearly showed how the players belonged to each other. The Springboks, arms around each other respecting the performance, also presented one team with a sense of belonging.

A spinoff of belonging is the creation of a “them and us syndrome”, where people see others as opposition; on the rugby field, players will do whatever they can to beat the opposition. During the game we saw spectators teasing each other as we had done at breakfast, although with total respect – none of the hooliganism associated with some football supporters.

After the game, players from both sides formed a large circle with their arms around each other in a display of sportsmanship.

Signs, symbols, and colours

In the stadium we were surrounded by signs and symbols, all communicating with our conscious and subconscious minds. This started with the tournament’s logo at the entrance and continued inside, with sponsors’ logos priming our thoughts, even if we didn’t know it.

Whilst the players were singing their respective national anthems, some would touch their left breast, proudly holding the national symbol of their team. The Springbok team had the trophy icon on their shoulder with the dates 1995, 2007, and 2019 beneath it to symbolise their previous tournament wins. Without a doubt, the Protea flower on the chest, the Springbok on the left sleeve, the cup on the right sleeve, and the tournament logo on the right breast all held significance for players and supporters.

Embodied feeling (head, heart, and gut)

Throughout the stadium experience, I had goosebumps and the hairs on my neck were standing up. I was experiencing an embodied feeling: I felt the energy, the passion, the love for the game, the pride, and the excitement. I didn’t have to think about it, the feelings (conscious and subconscious) were in my head, my heart, and my gut. My senses were working overtime, contributing to the feelings I was experiencing and my enjoyment of the game and the whole day.

After the game, I noticed supporters from both teams with tears running down their cheeks – some with the joy of winning, others knowing their chance of advancing to the knockout stages had disappeared. These feelings of happiness and sadness aren’t conscious at all. Rather, they come from within the subconscious mind: the embodied feeling of head, heart, and gut.

Injuries and mistakes

Throughout the game, players made mistakes, knocking the ball on, passing it forward, or giving away penalties that allowed the other team to score points or gain territory. Their fellow players did not criticise them, though, instead encouraging them as if to say: “It’s fine, we all make mistakes.”

Some players started the game with their legs strapped up, either carrying some sort of injury or in an attempt to prevent an injury during the game. Almost inevitably, though, some players did get injured.

What does rugby have to do with the workplace?

I imagine many of you will probably be wondering why on earth Darlington is writing about rugby in a safety, health, environment, and quality magazine. Well, I believe there is much in common between what we experience in rugby and what happens every day in the workplace.

I’ve already mentioned the four elements: belonging; signs, symbols, and colours; embodied mind; and mistakes and injuries. At work, just like the rugby teams or the spectators, most people want to belong to a group. This results in “groupthink”, where employees and contractors will act in accordance with the norms of the group.

If team leaders promote a good environment where everyone looks after their own safety and that of others, then team members will probably act in the same manner. On the flip side, if team leaders disregard the caring approach to others or promote risk taking, their team will probably do the same.

As mentioned, belonging has a spinoff – a sense of not belonging to the group. This can be seen in the attitudes of, for example, employees vs contractors, production vs maintenance, or white collar vs blue collar. It is hence the leaders’ responsibility to identify the various groups, provide a focus on harmonising them, and prevent people from feeling that they don’t belong, are excluded, or are discriminated against. This has a huge impact on the culture of any organisation, be it positively or negatively.

In our organisation, we use a specific orange shade in documents, communication material, and company logos.
It is even painted on our building tops. What people don’t realise is that all of these things bring us a sense of belonging no different to the icons displayed on a rugby player’s jersey. 

Embodied feeling, meanwhile, is something not often understood or accepted by leaders in all walks of life, including the risk and safety field. The overarching belief is that people only think with their brains, but this could not be further from the truth. We think with one brain, but also with three minds; even though we consciously think about our actions, most actions and thoughts occur in the subconscious mind.

Our embodied mind also dictates many of our actions. For example, if we touch a hot pipe, we instinctively pull our hand away without consciously thinking about the action. Sadly, in an incident investigation, people are often asked what they were thinking or how they could be so negligent. This fails to consider that the person might not have been thinking consciously and was probably taking action through the embodied mind.

Finally, as most readers already know, I am against safety slogans or memes like “zero harm” and “all injuries are preventable”. Even worse, we see consultant companies and individuals selling the zero harm approach, which is a farce that many companies buy into. We do not want to see employees getting injured, however, and so we implement systems, initiatives, and various controls to minimise the number of injuries. The fact remains that believing there will be no injuries is only an illusion. 

Subscribing to zero harm means that leaders believe people are infallible and do not make mistakes. Sitting in the stands at the rugby match in France reminded us that there is an understanding within the game that players will get injured and make mistakes. Unfortunately, in many companies, mistakes are not tolerated and injuries drive a sense of failure and lead to blaming and hiding of incidents, with the spinoff that there is no learning. Thinking about the teams making their united circle after the game, I wondered how often mutual respect exists between leaders and their teams in organisations.

Well, leaving the stadium and writing this article on the flight from France back to Vienna, we discussed who might win the final and be crowned champions. At this stage there are some favourites, but we can never be sure. I hope that as you read this, the Green and Gold team has defended its title of World Champions. What’s sure was that we had a true sense of belonging, experienced the embodied feeling, and identified with the semiotics of signs and symbols. All of these are elements that need to be considered by leaders and by risk and safety professionals. In summary, organisations can learn a lot from rugby and other sports in developing the desired culture.  

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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