The nature of a two month long international tournament and the fervour of each nation’s supporters can make it easy to talk of ‘campaigns’, ‘battles’ and ‘wars’. Every writer and pundit drags out their best hyperbole. It’s understandable and it’s fun to get swept up in the excitement. Inevitably someone will roll out a variant of the Bill Shankley quote,
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”.
And then you attend a remembrance service. Which is precisely what Denis and the England team did the day before their final group stage match against France. During that service Denis got to thinking about his Grandad,
“He went to Burma with 3,000 others in the Second World War and was only one of a hundred who made it back. I’m not normally affected too much by things like that but the occasion, with all of us standing there sweating in our suits really struck me.
I don’t have to die to represent my country – that’s what other people did so we could play in this tournament.
I’ve been involved in the National Team for a couple of years as a coach and for a lot longer from when I was a player and there’s always been a sense of pride and responsibility, carrying people’s hopes on your shoulders. But when I got to thinking about my Grandad it struck me that the sacrifices they made gave us the freedom to do what we do. I don’t have to die to represent my country – that’s what other people did so we could play in this tournament. That’s something to reflect on. It keeps you grounded but it also gives you focus”.
“I suppose despite how tough it is, the hardships of playing International Rugby are a luxury in comparison?”.
“I’m reading a book set in Roman times. They went on campaigns where you had to march for two days solid, carrying all your kit, to go and fight someone to the death. If you had a sore calf or bad neck and let it affect you, you got left behind to fend for yourself. So, no it’s not that hard”.
“But to be fair, we live in different times. Most people would still fold under the pressure of playing for England, physically and mentally”.
“Enough has probably been said about the game. Are we happy with the result? Yes. Could we have played better in the second half? Of course. Also the French raised their game, their energy levels and their physicality in the second half. They were determined to avoid humiliation. There has been a degree of media criticism around selection but everyone and anyone here could be asked to play a massive role at any time. We have an idea of our best 17 but every single player can deliver to the standard at International level. As to mindset, things change now”.
“In what way?”
They have created an environment that they own built on accountability…
“It goes to a new intense level. It’s about being clinical and comprehensive. Our fundamentals have got to be better than everyone else. We’re pretty ruthless in training. We attempt replication of test match football. Everything goes up a couple of notches. They know that. I’m here to help guide them through this phase and re-enforce what we’re about. It’s also about letting them be grown-ups. They have created an environment that they own built on accountability, making the right choices in each moment. It’s something we’ve been working on since last years’ Four Nations. I’m not here to make them that much better but to remind them how good they are and how good they can be “.
“Which drops you into another week of review, preparation and of waiting?”.
“Top teams don’t get bored at doing the little things that count because they understand the context. Also, we all still enjoy each other’s company. It doesn’t make you successful but it helps when everyone gets on. There are no dickheads in this set up”.
If you’ve read any of the previous blog pieces you’ll know that, despite it sounding fun, living out of a suitcase can wear thin very quickly. It pales into comparison against two-day route marches or jungle warfare but, in its own way, it can sap the soul. If you’ve ever been delayed for several hours at an airport you know the feeling. On one hand, everything you could possibly need is on offer; warmth, food, loos, duty free… the sort of environment that millions on this planet who live in abject poverty would be delirious to experience. Yet it drives you up the wall. Perhaps it’s just the fickle nature of humanity. I pick up the theme,
“But it must till be a bit like Groundhog Day?”.
…a bit of boredom can be good for you. With technology we’ve become addicted to distraction.
Denis snorts, “It’s terrible to say it but comfort and a constant supply of food and coffee can be really, really dull. Probably like for Toni and Jess in the build up to the Olympics. It’s about constant re-evaluation, keeping on track. Keeping one eye on the big prize. Also, a bit of boredom can be good for you. With technology we’ve become addicted to distraction. A little bit of boredom can help you focus your mind, get centred. I’ve chosen to starve myself today to remind myself what it’s like to get hungry.”.
“I wonder what your Grandad would think”.
“Not a lot, not a lot”, Denis pauses, “He’d still be rooting for us to win though”.
Coach Down Under
This article is part of the Coach Down Under Series.