Denis and the team have had three days to reflect after the first game in their world cup campaign, a loss to the hosts and tournament favourites, Australia. Watching from the edge of my seat, like many people, I finished the game with mixed feelings. Yes, England lost but the signs of a bigger performance were there for all to see in the second half, irrespective of your rugby knowledge. I suggest as much to Denis and am relieved to hear him agree,
“We went in with confidence and built on the time we spent together. But we still knew we were playing the number one side in their back yard. I said it after the game and my view hasn’t changed – that’s the first time in a long time I’ve seen what I’d call a ‘real’ test. For most players, on both sides, it was the toughest game they’ve played in. It was fast, brutal, clinical. And we created opportunities but we failed to push through and complete them. We’ve now got five games in six weeks to build on that performance, improve and beat them”.
“Where do you start with that?”
“Well, it was a tough weekend,” Denis pauses and re-sets, “Not tough, just difficult. We ensured they had a good time on Saturday at the races in recognition of their efforts at the game. After that it was about recovery sessions and re-enforcing the message that we’re on a journey so we need to stick together”. The mention of the word ‘journey’ reminds him of his recent flight, “And there’s been the trip from Melbourne to Sydney”.
“More time on planes?”.
“Exactly. It’s tiring. And they seem to feed you constantly”.
I make a mental note to ask how the fitness regime is going but for now I resolve to stay on topic,
“How are the players responding?”
“We had a good team meeting on the Sunday in Sydney. The lads were talking about game and what they should have done better”.
“How do you get the balance between disappointment in the loss and satisfaction with the performance. It seems to me that too much of either could be damaging to the group”.
“When we review our level of performance we look at what is missing and then ask the question, ‘have we got ability as group to advance, to improve, to replace what is missing. Is there more in us’. That needs honesty”.
“And the answer?”
“Was a resounding ‘yes’. There is a genuine confidence and belief in the group. To come back from a disappointment like the first game is about mindset. It’s about having a ‘growth mindset”.
“That’s a phrase knocked around a lot, what does it mean to you?”
Don’t be afraid of falling over, just ensure you fall forward – use it as a learning experience, the chance to get better.
“It means you can’t be afraid of failure. You have got to challenge yourself to get better. Don’t be afraid of falling over, just ensure you fall forward – use it as a learning experience, the chance to get better. I’m the same as anyone, I don’t know how good I am until I keep trying after falling down. That’s what ‘falling forward’ means and that’s a growth mindset”.
“How do you manage that from a coaching perspective?”
“That’s the meeting with Wayne. The point is not to go soft. In training we need to stay ruthless and maintain intensity. If you have belief and we do that then we’re heading in the right direction. It’s critical not to do anything that deviates from that. Of course, there are some hurdles to come – like the other teams that want to be in that final”.
“Stick to the plan but improve?”
You don’t get to the moon by building an aeroplane. You build a rocket…
“You don’t get to the moon by building an aeroplane. You build a rocket. We’ve seen our blue print for that rocket and we need to stick to that – not start building something else”.
“That’s profound. I’m going to steal that”. Denis laughs. As our time is running out and I still need to check on his burpees I change the subject,
“How is Sydney?”
“Great. We’ve been training at the Rabbitohs ground, home of the Burgess brothers”.
“Has Russell Crowe dropped in to say hello and get your autograph yet?” (Crowe is the owner of the Sydney Rabbitohs who the Burgess brothers play for).
“There’s time. What’s the lead into the game like?”
“It’s about keeping everyone on track. Everyone is monitored, constantly, by the medical, S&C and physios. It’s not like working on an Oil rig for eight weeks where you get up every day and do the same job. Things are constantly changing; our surroundings, facilities, time zones…”
“The spirit is still good?”
“I know coaches will tell you it’s not important for everyone to get on but believe me it helps massively when you’ve got a group like this that does”.
“How about the guys external to the main squad?”
“Yes it’s about keeping them motivated, chatting to them, but they get it. They stay ready because they know they could play a massive part at any time. Some guys are already showing signs of wear and tear. Everyone understands what we’re about as a whole group: staff and players. It’s about staying honest and staying clear. Wayne doesn’t promise anything but everyone knows he wants to use everyone. We share a collective purpose and we’re all in it together”.
‘Not always easy to keep that balance?”
“Apparently the Italian team have been fighting amongst themselves. You don’t want that. When you’ve got 24 bulls in a room sometimes they clash heads and lock horns and you want them to be aggressive and use their emotions – but in the right way. Not thumping a team mate on a night out”.
The previous night, Halloween, I stumbled across the following picture and sent it to Denis. It seems to sum the challenge up. It made him laugh.
Before he heads out for dinner with the team he tells me he’s still on track for his 500 burpees per week, albeit the first two weeks have taken their toll,
“I think I underestimated how hard it might be to fit in so it’s taken the whole weeks for the first two weeks”.
“I’m not surprised”.
“But I’m determined to fit them into five days this time round. There are quite a few sessions I’m running where burpees are creeping in. Everyone thinks I’m mad but they’re laughing and doing them, Burpees everywhere”.
Coach Down Under
This article is part of the Coach Down Under Series.