Archive for the ‘World Cup’ Category

In Dunedin, June 19th, 2010, New Zealand played against Wales. The All Black players and coaches went through their pre-game rituals: walks, naps, conversations, visualisations. They received their jerseys, and thought about what it meant to them. One word comes to mind: everything. Kick-off time finally arrived.

They absolutely hammer them. Dan Carter scores 27 points. Richie McCaw becomes the most successful All Black captain in history. After the game, and after the press meetings, the players sit in the dressing room. These are giants of the game. Some are the best players of their positions in the world-others are some of the best players in the history of the game.

Mils Muliaina, the off-field captain, gives his two cents. Then the backroom staff. Graham Henry comes last, telling his team this needs work and that needs tweaking. Finally, he congratulations McCaw on his achievement, and the team echo their coach’s sentiments.

But that’s where it stops. A scoreline of 42-7 doesn’t mean a reward of a night out, or a piss up. It means a reward of knowing the team reached their potential.

And then the unexpected occurs. As James Kerr wrote in Legacy, “two of the senior players-one an international player of the year, twice-each pick up a long-handled broom and begin to sweep the sheds. They brush the mud and the gauze into small piles in the corner”.

Why are they tidying up? These are world-class players, who play with a team that leads the way in rugby.
“The All Blacks are tidying up after themselves.
Sweeping the sheds.
Doing it properly.
So no one else has to.
Because no one looks after the All Blacks.
The All Blacks look after themselves.”

Creating a team like the All Blacks is no mean feat; only a number of coaches in history have ever acheived it. It takes years, it takes work, it takes effort and time beyond all belief. It also takes players with extremely strong character.

The All Blacks have a very simple mantra. It’s not very long, and doesn’t take time to learn off. It’s to the point-simple and direct. It’s so simple, in fact, it consists of two words, stolen from the Sydney Swans: “No Dickheads”.

Basically, it means no player is bigger than the team. In the past, players who were good enough to play for the All Blacks have never been selected. Some players who have been selected have never been asked back. This is simply because they don’t believe in the mantra. They believe themselves to be bigger than the team. All Blacks don’t do that. All Blacks are never bigger than the team.

If a ruck needs hitting, it’s hit. If a player needs to be stopped, a tackle is made. If an offload needs to be made, the position of the player doesn’t matter. They work until they do it all. They measure themselves only against themselves. But not every coach is lucky to have the All Blacks at their disposal.

Coaching is not an easy job. You have egotistical superstars, humble work horses, players with skills beyond anyone else’s and players who struggle with a left-handed pass. The lower the leagues you go, the lower the skill-sets, but, sometimes, the higher the number of egos. It’s always the way.

But selection should not be based on talent alone. If a player can kick a goal from 50 yards, but is quick to berate a teammate who makes a mistake, should he be selected? If a player can glide through players, but refuses to ruck over and blame a forward for being slow, should he be on the pitch? To both cases, absolutely not.

The players who continuously look to better themselves and their team should take preference. You see these players at every club: outhalves who are at the training field an hour before training practising their kicking, hookers who show up 30 minutes early with a bag of balls and a throwing target, fullbacks who show up early to field garryowens. These are the players you want. In other words: No Dickheads.

Wayne Smith said that “talent was irrelevant” when he talks about the Chiefs. “We picked guys with high work rate, strong body movers, guys that were unselfish and sacrificial mindset”.
This is extremely important because, as ex-NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said, “the question is usually not how well the person performs, but how well they perform together”.

To borrow another example from a different sport, Michael Jordan was the top scorer in his first five NBA seasons. He didn’t win a single championship. It’s when he developed his game to help the team that championship titles arrived. No one is bigger than the team.

Dealing with egos is never easy, but it’s necessary. The All Blacks deal with it themselves. One famous story that emerged from a past World Cup camp was of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane enjoying a night out. Tabloids went to town on them. What did management do about it? They sat them in front of a number of senior players, and left them off. I imagine Dagg and Jane have never felt worse than having to explain their actions to someone like Richie McCaw, a person to whom the All Black way of life is everything.

But, again, not every team have these players at their disposal. In my experience, I’ve witnessed a player leave the warm-up and drive home because he found out he wasn’t in the starting XV. The next training session, he was welcomed back with no repercussions. I’ve played with a player who stopped attending training as he wasn’t starting matches; as a result, the coach started him in the next game to entice him back. In both cases, these players should have been cut loose. No one is bigger than the team.

A team should want to play together. Mistakes are inevitable in games, and a player who cares about the team will rue his or her mistakes after the game. But what is important is that they know their teammates don’t mind; in fact, they’re willing to work twice as hard to rectify that player’s mistake. That’s teamwork.

As I said earlier, coaching is never easy. But there are a number of methods that can be introduced to help build a team.

  • Encourage players to get together for coffee, lunch, or an activity at least once a week, but try to ensure they go in different weekly groups as much as possible. 
  • While travelling to games, have players of the same position travel together (for example, second rows together so as they can talk about lineouts, scrumhalf and outhalf so as they can talk about their patterns and game plan). However, when returning from games, have backs sit with forwards.
  • A player who hasn’t been selected should be appointed the off-field captain for the day. Their duties should include noting their thoughts on the game, and being invited to speak to the team after the game about the positives and negatives. This should be a respected position, and appointed to different players every week.(Thoughts could be run past the coach first, and should be kept as positive as possible.)
  • Mistakes will happen. Encourage a policy of “no problem, next phase”.  
  • When teams score against you, encourage your team to gather under the posts and introduce a policy of “Regroup, Regather, Reclaim Restart”. Always focus on the next job.
  • Encourage positivity as much as possible, and adopt the All Blacks practice that no one is bigger than the team. Egos may be bruised, but it’s not an individual sport. 
  • Give players a chance to take over leadership early in the season, be it a warm-up or a drill. Every player should look to be a leader on and off the pitch. 
  • At training, perform a two minute fitness drill. At the end of the drill, have a non-kicker (usually a prop or a front five forward) kick at goal. If he/she misses, do another two minute drill. Then have a player throw a ball to the tail of the lineout (again, a player who you know can’t throw). Again, if he/she misses, perform another two minute drill. Repeat once more with a different player performing another player’s role. At the end of the drill, make the point people groaned and moaned when players failed, rather than choosing to say “no problem, next phase”. Also point out that, under fatigue and pressure, no player’s job is easy, so no other player should complain if they fail.
  • Question players about what they would do in certain situations, and constantly keep asking why. Swap players around in set piece moves and see how they react. You never know when they may need to slot in. Practising match situations is the best way to prepare. Defend with 14 players to prepare for a sinbin, or attack with five backs to see who steps up in case of an injury on the pitch. You’ll find out a lot about your players and their character.
  • Back yourself, and back your decisions. If you drop a player, or decide to do something different, make sure you’re able to explain why, and back your call. On the other hand, if you’re wrong, don’t be afraid to apologise. You expect players to put their hands up for something like a missed tackle, so you should lead from the front on that front. But don’t give in to one player’s complaints.

At the end of the day, there are two questions you need to ask your players: what can they offer the team, and what are they prepared to sacrifice. Their answers will tell you what you want to hear, but it’s their actions and character that will back them up.

These tips are designed to aid coaches, and all may not work for the team you coach. However, the search for improvement never stops, and rugby is a game of character. Feel free to try them out and let us know how it goes. Pre-season is upon us, and there’s no better time to put a stamp on your season.

Finally, best of luck to everyone with the upcoming season. Enjoy it.

The Loose Head

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Looking back at New Zealand v Wales, Australia v England, and South Africa v Ireland, The Loose Head takes a quick look at what we learned:

1. Wales can turn it on when they want. When the Welsh boys kept ball in hand, the All Blacks found it hard to live with them for an hour. Williams and North, most noticeably, made hay when offered a chance to run. Perhaps a tactic that should be kept for the series?

2. Liam Williams will no longer be a back-up to Leigh Halfpenny. The Toulon player is going to find it very difficult to get a starting berth ahead of Williams who put his stamp on the game yesterday. He made a couple of mistakes, but a shining light for Wales. Easily their Man of the Match.

3. Taulupe Faletau is dining at the same table as Read, Pocock and Vunipola. He was incredible yesterday. His work rate was second to none and was up there with Williams as Wales’ top performer. Special mention to Gethin Jenkins who was also immense.

4. A New Zealand team in transition is still the best team in the world. They couldn’t get into the game in the first half and lacked structure, with Julian Savea having a game to forget. But in the second half, they found their composure and blew Wales away. Slow to start, but still quick to put the opposition away.

5. Aaron Smith is the best 9 in world rugby. He ran support lines, kept his forwards moving, and was his all-round brilliant self. The honour of leading the haka was well deserved. He seems to love his team more than anyone, and dropped to his knees to celebrate when Naholo crossed the whitewash.

6. Julian Savea and Dane Coles are mortals. Although Savea scored, it was a day to forget for the winger, and Coles made uncharacteristic mistakes throughout the game too. Not saying they won’t bounce back, but rare to see them suffer poor performances.

7. England are probably the second best team in the world right now. Australia blew them away in the opening 20 minutes, but England held on and took their points when they were on offer. The English pack eventually got into the game and spoiled breakdowns, scrums, and mauls, scrums against a pack who demolished them in the World Cup last year.

8. Eddie Jones is not afraid to admit to his mistakes. Luther Burrell was shipped off in the first half to make way for George Ford, and that made a huge difference to England’s playmaking and backline. Farrell is well versed in the 12 role, and England continued to grow more dominant.

9. We still don’t know what Eddie Jones is thinking. A number of people, myself included, find it hard to understand why Alex Goode wasn’t in the starting XV, let alone the squad. Also, the selection of Yarde ahead of Nowell is also difficult to understand. But then again, England won, Yarde scored, and Mike Brown had a solid game bar a couple of mistakes. His thinking is justified.

10. Samu Kerevi was born for Test rugby. The Fijian born had a fantastic debut, and didn’t look uncomfortable in the Test arena. A star for the future.

11. Michael Hooper is the best number 7 in the world. He scored two tries, with one highlighting his pace down the wing and composure to finish. He took the captain’s armband in the 57th minute, and scored in the 58th. He is a leader, and it’s amazing to think he’s still only 24.

12. Micheal Cheika will have a lot of work to do before Australia’s next meeting with England. The Wallabies went 10-0 ahead after 17 minutes, but slowly faded out of the game. Pocock suffered a fractured eye-socket, and will be a big loss to the Australians.

13. Based on yesterday’s performance, South Africa are not the force they once were. The Boks weren’t helped with the early loss of Pat Lambie, but bar Mvovo and flashes from Le Roux, their backline showed little creativity. At one stage, before making way for Jesse Kriel, Lionel Mapoe looked perplexed at the lack of line breaks the Boks’ backs were making.

14. Jesse Kriel needs to start the next test. The Bulls man is a big, physical, dynamic player and offers a better attacking option than the centres of De Allende or Mapoe. Whatever the reasons for benching him for the first Test, he needs to start.

15. Eben Etzebeth relishes the physicality of the Springboks. Early in the game, he dove across a ruck to get to Stander. Later, he entered a ruck and blasted Jamie Heaslip. He constantly winds up his opposition, and holds no fear for his own safety. Made a number of mistakes late in the game, but one of the Springboks’ best assets.

16. Paddy Jackson showed the world what he is capable of. I campaigned for the Six Nations tournament for Jackson to be involved, and feel totally vindicated due to his performance. He was cool under pressure, and when the points were on offer, he told his captain he wanted to kick for goal. Ireland’s effort can be epitomised through Jackson, when in the 78th minute, he ripped the ball from Springbok number 8, Duane Vermeulen, in the tackle.

17. Andy Farrell has clearly made an impact on the Ireland team. Defence wins matches, and the first Test was a prime example. South Africa failed to score before half-time when Ireland were down to 13 men. Additionally, their first try should have been disallowed and their second came from an Irish lapse in concentration. The Irish defence will only continue to improve throughout the series. Henderson, Mike Ross, et al, were fantastic.

18. Jared Payne should continue to play at fullback for club and country. He only had to make two tackles but he aligned and marshalled his troops, and was sublime in attack, picking superb lines and making superb offloads. He is the best 15 in Ireland.

19. Mathieu Raynal is not an international standard referee. He awarded a red card which nearly spoiled the game, went to the TMO every second occasion, and made poor calls for both sides throughout the game.

20. Special mention to the Ireland U20 team who beat New Zealand U20 yesterday in what was a thrilling game.

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“Pain is temporary”. A phrase a lot of young people are told when they first start playing rugby. It’s one of those old clichés, up there with “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. A lie, in other words. The bigger they are, the more painful they are to tackle. Nor is pain temporary. Not even close. With Mental Health Awareness Week taking place at the moment, we look at the safety of players and the impact rugby is having on their future health.

When you think of everything that goes into a rugby match, it is far more than just 80 minutes of trying to get the ball down on the other side of the pitch. There are a high number of collisions (between the tackle, ruck, and maul areas). A high number of training sessions include contact drills of some description. Players train in the gym in order to make themselves more athletic, stronger, and bigger than their opposition. And only the elite are monitored closely.

Most players will play while carrying an injury. Granted, they may not train in the lead up to that game in order to rehabilitate the injury as much as possible, but they will play. Look at Dan Carter in the Champions Cup final for Racing 92. He went into the game with one good leg, and came off early in the second half. Racing 92 still have the remainder of their domestic league to play-so why risk it? But the “it” is not risking missing your best player; the “it” is making sure the player isn’t risking his health in the future.

Sabbaticals are not a concept lost on Dan Carter. He went to Perpignan a number of years ago, and got out of the New Zealand limelight for a year. The idea was that playing away from all that pressure would rejuvenate his game. In theory it was a great concept. In reality, he ruptured his Achilles and played very little rugby.

Carter was destined to shine on the big stage, but getting knocked out of the 2007 World Cup and getting injured in the 2011 campaign stole that from him. He took a second sabbatical, this time not playing the game whatsoever. A while later, he was Man of the Match in a World Cup final, and kicked his last All Black conversion with his weaker leg.

I’m not saying a sabbatical was the magic behind his performance that day; I’m simply saying it helped.

Alex Corbisiero toured Australia in 2013 with the British and Irish Lions, and scored a try in the third Test. He established himself as one of the top front-rowers in the game. But he decided he had enough. His decision came about as his contract with Northampton Saints was winding down, and he chose to simply not renew his contract. Now, he’s in a good place.

“I’ve had 14 weeks off and feel really good. I was physically and mentally spent after 10 years of full-time rugby. The intensity, the physicality, the injuries and the pressure I put on myself took its toll. I knew if I wanted to play rugby again I had to stop for a while.”

It was brave of ‘Corbs’ to take a break, and he knew not everyone would appreciate his decision. But he did it anyway, as it was best for him. He was proactive rather than waiting for an injury to prevent him from playing long into the future.

But players want to play. They love the game, they love their job, and after earning an opportunity for become a professional sportsman/woman, why would they give it up for a year and face an uncertain future or a year with zero income? You require some level of robustness to play rugby, and fans can confuse that with being almost unbreakable. It’s simply not the case. Especially when it comes to younger players:

“The accumulative wear-and-tear worries me. Maro Itoje is a superstar at 21 and we need to make sure that in six years, at his peak, he’s fresh enough to be physically imposing. He’s a phenomenal player but we can’t have him being run into the ground by playing 30-odd games every season. Same as George North. He’s 24 and playing Tests since he was 18 – without a proper break. We have to look after these great players.”

Robert Kitson wrote a piece on England’s Rugby Championship system in which he referenced Ben Hooper’s sentiments. Hooper feels that players in the Championship are being forced to accept contracts by people with “scant interest in their physical or mental well-being”, but for very little money. Whereas the money is an issue, welfare should be the upmost priority. The mental aspect of the sport is just as strenuous as the physical.

Kitson also wrote an article based on the mental strain players face in professional rugby. He admires Rory Lamont’s opening up in the Sunday Times about his feelings towards retirement, and rightly so, as it was incredibly courageous:

“You’re thinking: ‘I don’t want to live like this. I’d rather die. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get struck by lightning or step in front of a bus.’ Coming out of rugby, my world pretty much collapsed.”

Kitson also describes how Lamont went on to describe how he struggles to cope outside what professionals would describe as a “safety-blanket” of club rugby. He added:

“Once that’s removed, you’re that little child, completely scared, totally vulnerable and very much on your own. I wasn’t always in love with rugby, but I was surrounded by friends, travelling the world. Suddenly everything was gone. I felt like a spent battery, tossed on the scrapheap.”

But all this talk of taking a break is not a recent phenomenon. George Chuter echoed Corbisiero’s sentiments in an interview with the Guardian, when he spoke about how his gift of a long career was in fact borrowed time from his future:

“I’m under no illusions. You have a great career, you have a great time – and it is a great career – but the human body can’t take that sort of punishment and come away scot-free. If you want to get to the top level you’ve got to make sacrifices. And it’s not just your time, or a bag of chips – it’s sacrificing your long‑term health. You want to have that time in the sun. But unfortunately it’s a deal with the devil.”

But Chuter decided to act, and like Corbisiero, he took a sabbatical in 2000. He felt he disillusioned with the game, so he walked away for a time. As fans will know, that did not signal the end of Chuter. He came back to have an illustrious career with Leicester Tigers and became a fan favourite.

But since Chuter’s sabbatical in 2000, one he took partially due to being mentally drained, things have changed. Players are only a tweet away from being accessible to the public 24/7, leaving them prime targets for upset fans after a poor game. Social media is just another platform where these players, who may be struggling internally, can be poked at with taunts and ill wishes. This does not help to aid their mental recuperation. It does not add to their self-confidence, or their self-worth. Just because they play sport at an elite level does not mean they aren’t struggling with their own issues.

Sabbaticals seem to work. Alex Corbisiero is happy. George Chuter returned to have a glittering career. Dan Carter became the World Player of the Year for the third time. His New Zealand team-mate and twice-winning World Cup captain Richie McCaw deemed one necessary. Of late, David Pocock had a sabbatical to study abroad included in his contract. Even Joe Marler has withdrawn himself from the England tour to Australia to rest for next season. But how could unions go about to make these breaks accessible to players who can’t afford to take one off their own backs?

Perhaps the unions could include a sabbatical period in every contract. Players could be offered the option of a period of 3-6 months half-pay in return for taking one, or clubs could offer the option of a six month paid leave after a certain period of service. Just an idea.

A sabbatical could offer players a chance to build on their lives outside rugby; experience what it’s like to live a normal life for a while, let them concentrate on their business or focus on what they’ll do when they hang up the boots. It would allow them to recover mentally and physically, so that Lamont’s situation won’t be repeated.

I am also in no way stating that the clubs, unions, or players’ unions are not doing a good job; I’m only hoping that player welfare continues to improve. With this being Mental Health Awareness Week, there’s no time like the present.

Image Credit: Sky Sports

Interview Credit: The Irish Times, The Guardian

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With New Zealand captain McCaw retiring at the end of the last RWC, it left a void in terms of who would lead the team the following season. Hansen has put all speculation to bed, stating that Kieran Read will now lead the All Blacks from the number 8 position.

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“Reado’s had experience already as captain nine times,” Hansen told Radio Sport. “Whilst it will be a new experience to be there full time, at least he’s had a taste of it.”

Read led New Zealand against Tonga in the last World Cup, and has been a senior figure in the team for the last number of seasons. His try and Man of the Match count speak for themselves.

Hansen also went on to say that the vacant number seven jersey would most likely be filled by Sam Cane.

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The 24-year-old Cane, who has already notched up 31 Tests, has also led the side, against Namibia at the World Cup.

“Sam Cane’s had a taste of test footy and he’s raring to go,” said Hansen. “So if we’re going in with all of those things brand new then it would be a lot different but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the people that are going to step up.”

With some autobiographies being a complete waste of time, The Loose Head took the time to bring you our favourite rugby reads.

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It’s In The Blood: My Life (Lawrence Dallaglio)

The ex-England player and captain writes openly and candidly about everything in his life, from the tragedy of his sister’s death to winning the World Cup with England to his brief yet unhappy marriage separation. Incredibly frank, Dallaglio leaves you turning page after page as he describes life’s incredible highs and devastating lows.

Tales of England tours, Lions’ tours and World Cups are all told, along with brilliant details which bring us right into the heart of Wasps, Dallaglio’s club. He tells of how, as a young player, he was scouted not only for Italy but for Ireland as well. A chapter is also designated to the ‘drug dealer scandal’ which lost him the England captaincy, in which he blames the journalists who set him up along with himself for playing along. Some stories will have you laughing out loud, others will have you putting the book down in order to digest what you just read. All in all, a fantastic read.

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Bull: My Story (John Hayes)

If your a fan of the humble Hayes, his story is right up your alley. Characteristically modest, Hayes tells of his start to rugby as a teenager and the path it took him on. He credits as many people as he can and makes sure not to exclude anybody.

He writes as honestly as he played. He describes the long journey Munster were forced to take before winning the destined prize in 2006 and 2008 and makes no excuses for their failures along the way. He is so humble that he credits his opponents throughout his career, not only by saying the games themselves were tough, but by naming them individually as well. Hayes’ story has plenty of laughs throughout, especially when he describes the humiliations and jokes his team mates played on him throughout his career, and also shows how important family life is to the Cappamore farmer. A great book written by a modest man.

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Rainbow Warrior (Francois Pienaar)

Although the autobiography doesn’t delve deeply into the hardships South Africa faced as a country during his playing years, Pienaar describes his rugby career thoroughly from starting at school to finishing in Saracens. He never once questions his abilities throughout his story and you feel almost as if he believed himself to be one of the greatest flankers to ever play.

In respect to the 1995 World Cup winning captain, it would be extremely difficult not to reference the Springboks’ World Cup journey and he does so very well. He expertly describes the players along with his close relationships with his coaches and Nelson Mandela. He also describes how he was almost forced to take his career to England and his role in developing a then sub-standard Saracens. A good read if you liked him as a player.

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Red Blooded (Alan Quinlan)

Out of all the autobiographies written by past players, this one has to be up there as one of the most brutally honest. Quinlan’s story is told through hilarious stories and dismally depressing tales. It’s clear he wrote this as he played: in your face and to the point.

‘Quinny’ humourously talks about his youth and early playing days with Clanwilliam, Shannon and Munster before becoming more serious in talking about his dreams and international ambitions. He discusses his injuries and his disciplinary issues with clarity, but the most poignant moment of the book comes when he describes his feelings after his self-imposed exclusion from the 2009 Lions tour and the actions he took in order to recover. An incredibly honest and brilliant read.

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Chester (Mark Keohane)

A biography rather than an autobiography, this tells the story of Chester Williams, the sole black player in the 1995 South African World Cup winning squad. He tells of his non-political upbringing, the death of his brother, how he was never really interested in playing rugby as a youngster and what it was like for a black rugby player trying to make it in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Chester is set in the same time-frame as Pienaar’s work but rugby is shown in a completely different light than his international captain’s story. Chester tells of the hardships he endured because of his colour and of the isolation he felt in the Springbok camp. He tells of how other black players were not given the same chances as their white comrades and gives a wonderful insight into what it was like to play under a certain Nick Mallet. Chester gives a valuable insight into life as a black Springbok in post-Apartheid South Africa, a valuable read for any rugby enthusiast.

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Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson (Paul Kimmage)

A biography based on the life of Matt Hampson, a fantastic young Leicester and England prospect who was left paralysed after a freak training ground accident. Hampson’s story is hugely inspirational and a must read for any player who has ever felt upset or frustrated by an injury, or for those who simply wish to read the most inspiring modern day biography.

Hampson tells his story, a story that will leave you laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time. The majority of the book is written as if it was based in a courtroom setting, with interviews given from Hampson’s fellow players and ex-coaches. This incredibly brave ex-prop shows his braveness as he does not let the injury hamper him in any way. He not only shows his love for rugby and Leicester, but also for his family, his friends and his life. A five-star read for any athlete, regardless of sport.

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The Autobiography (Jonah Lomu)

The late great omits no detail in his no-holds-barred autobiography, honestly depicting his early life and troublesome youth. He tells of the trouble he got into as a teenager and how rugby ended up as a fantastic outlet for his anger, becoming somewhat of a savour in his life.

One of the most famous wingers to ever play with the infamous All Blacks, Lomu writes about his entire career, one which changed the way rugby would be played forever. His story includes the tales of his first training sessions with the All Blacks (including a humorous training ground incident which also highlights the seriousness in which All Blacks take their training), his ambitions, his love for the Sevens game, his relationships on and off the field and, finally, the illness which forced him to give up the game. The Autobiography gives the reader a fantastic look at Lomu’s life and is a must-read for any All Black or rugby fanatic.

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The Outsider (Geordan Murphy)

One of the most under-valued players during Eddie O’Sullivan’s Ireland reign, yet one of Leicester’s greatest overseas signings, The Outsider tells the life of Geordan Murphy’s rugby life. His story begins as an out half at junior level at home in Naas before playing as a teenager in New Zealand to finishing as full back for one of the most powerful clubs in European history.

Murphy’s rugby life is told in complete honesty, including many references towards his relationship with Eddie O’Sullivan (who, in his own autobiography, Never Die Wondering, states very clearly that he and Murphy had no problem at all). He tells us how he started at junior level before travelling to Leicester for a trial and living with no other than Martin Johnson’s parents! Murphy’s desire to succeed is well documented, with some comedic stories put in along the way including IRFU officials, Martin Johnson, the Tuilagi family and, in particular, one very funny story which took place on the training ground involving Lewis ‘Mad Dog’ Moody. A great read for any Irish rugby follower.

Other books which may be of interest:

Beware of the Dog by Brian Moore

Tackling Life by Jonny Wilkonson

The Autobiography by Martin Jonhson

My Autobiography by Ronan O’Gara

Between the Lines by Matthew Knight

Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

Stand Up and Fight: How Munster Beat the All Blacks by Alan English

Brothers in Sport: Rugby by Charlie Mulqueen

Rags to Riches: The Story of Munster Rugby by Barry Coughlan

Never Die Wondering by Eddie O’Sullivan

This year’s world cup was said to have been organised in order to make it the fairest tournament yet. Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams were said to have the same turnaround in terms of days between games and everyone seemed pretty pleased by it. But is it completely fair?

The average turnaround for the top two Tiers is 6.52 days (6.67 days for Tier 1 and 6.37 for Tier 2). This means five full days for planning their next game, with probably the following as a schedule:

  • Day 1: Recovery and rehabilitation.
  • Day 2: Light training, gym work, and further rehabilitation.
  • Day 3. Gym session, intense training (contact session), and recovery.
  • Day 4: Gym session, team meeting, forwards and backs meeting, light session.
  • Day 5: Captain’s run, rehabilitation, and team meeting.
  • Day 6: Game day.

In a world cup, which is as intense a competition as these players will ever play in, this is a dream.

Looking at the numbers further, England and Ireland both enjoy an average turnaround of 7.3 days, whereas Australia, also a Tier 1 country, benefit of an average of 5.3. Scotland and Canada’s rest time mirrors that of Australia. So although it’s been promoted as the fairest tournament yet, Australia’s average rest is on average two days shorter than that of England, a team in Australia’s group. Very fair of the organisers.

The Tier 1 teams of France, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and Scotland all face a four day turnaround in the group stages, but let’s look at their opposition:

  • France v Romania
  • New Zealand v Namibia
  • South Africa v USA
  • Australia v Uruguay

With all due respect to the four opponents, they were never going to trouble these Tier 1 teams. France, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia were all capable of fielding what would be seen as “second” teams and still have to skill, composure and structure not only to win, but to win comfortably. You’ll notice that these Tier 1 countries played against Tier 4 or 5 opposition. Fair? Not at all. And this is why.

Five other countries also face or faced a four day turnaround in the group stages: Japan, USA, Uruguay, Romania and Namibia. Uruguay, Romania and Namibia are all Tier 5 countries-they are the lowest seeded teams in the competition so they cannot field a “second” team against stronger opponents, nor do Japan or USA have the strength in depth to do so either. Let’s look at the opposition these teams face/faced after their four day turnaround:

  • Japan v Scotland
  • Uruguay v England
  • Romania v Ireland
  • Namibia v Argentina
  • USA v Japan

These five countries have a mountain to climb. As we saw from Romania versus Ireland and Japan versus Scotland, the turnaround is simply too much for a lower seeded team as the strength in depth that other top Tier teams enjoy is simply not a luxury. To go into further detail, let’s examine Japan, South Africa and Scotland.

The South Africa side to face Japan was the most experienced side in Springbok history. Yet, for their next game against Samoa (seven days later), they could afford to make eight changes to their starting XV. Japan also made eight changes to their starting XV for their game against Scotland (four days later), but to what affect? Every team in that group (bar South Africa) need to play their best XV in each game to have a chance in progressing to the knock-out stages of the competition. Japan made eight changes to the team that miraculously beat South Africa by two points, and four days later they get absolutely trounced by an average Scotland side and lose by 35 points. It’s not difficult to recognise which of the two was Japan’s best side.

Japan’s statistics against South Africa and Scotland

S.A. Scotland
3 Tries 1
370 Metres Gained 352
95 Carries 59
16 Defenders Beaten 12
11 Turnovers 1
3 Line Breaks 3

Against South Africa, Japan scored three tries, made 370 metres through 95 carries, beat 16 defenders, made three line breaks and turned over South African possession eleven times. Against a team like the Springboks, these statistics are heroic for a team like Japan. In theory, an average Scottish team should have been chalked up as a ‘W’ for Japan too. But no. Against Scotland, Japan scored one try, made 352 metres, 59 carries, beat only twelve defenders and turned over Scottish possession just once.

South Africa did not play good rugby that day, but a good team can still win while playing badly. In other words, Japan played brilliantly; they moved the ball quickly and made the Springboks play a much faster game than they would have liked. Scotland turned up the heat against Japan in the second round, but didn’t do anything untoward what the Springboks did. There is something obviously wrong here. A four day turnaround for a team outside the top 10, meaning two consecutive games against top Tiered teams, is not fair. It meant fewer tries, metres gained, carries, and turnovers for a team who had, four days previous, beat one of the contenders to win out the tournament.

Every past world cup triumph comes from the squad, and not the starting XV alone. Teams with the ability to rotate their players and keep their best and most influential players fresh have a much better chance than those teams that don’t. There is no real coaching science behind this, it is just common sense. Teams like New Zealand, South Africa and Australia can face a four day turnaround and still expect their “second” team to complete the objective-win the game. Teams like Ireland can afford to play fringe players against Romania. But can the USA afford to put their best XV on the pitch against South Africa and hope their fringe players can beat the likes of Samoa and Scotland? Absolutely not.

The fixture list of this world cup is perfect if you are from a Tier one or Tier 2 country. If not, your team were facing an uphill battle before the tournament began.

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On the 23rd October, 2011, a little over 61,000 people travelled to Eden Park to watch the world cup final between France and the hosts, New Zealand. France’s tournament had been marred by rumours that Marc Lièvremont had lost the dressing room.

The year previous, Lièvremont coached France to a grand slam in the 2010 Six Nations championship, which was a fantastic achievement for a team ranked 8th in the world in mid-2009. The following tournament did not reflect this success, with England losing to England and, for the first time in their history, Italy. To add insult to injury, France had been leading Italy by 12 points with 20 minutes of the game remaining.

France were a super power in world rugby, the fifth best team in the world by official rankings. But their style of play was probably only second to New Zealand. They were famous for running the ball from deep, offloading as often as possible, and their belief that they could score from anywhere. But they should have also have been able to close that game out. The omens were not looking good for the world cup.

France went on to beat Wales in the semi-final of the 2011 world cup, and the assistant manager took the press conference instead of Lièvremont. Lièvremont, however, did go on to label some of his players as “spoil brats” after they celebrated the Wales win. It seemed the wheels were starting to fall off the French carriage.

France went on to lose the final to the hosts, and that’s when everything came into the spotlight. Imanol Harinordoquy criticised Lièvremont heavily and stated the team had managed themselves from the pool stages onwards. One would just have to look at the out-half choices during the tournament; playing Parra out of position and leaving François Trihn-Duc, a specialised 10, on the bench just shows not all was right during the tournament.

Lièvremont was quickly dropped after the tournament and in came Phillipe Saint-Andre, who was a French legend in his playing days. Unlike his predecessor, Saint-Andre managed a win against Italy in the 2012 Six Nations, but losses to England and Wales, with a draw against Ireland, resulted in France finishing fourth in the tournament.

The following tournament was even more damning for Saint-Andre and French fans. France lost their first three games, 18–23 against Italy, 6–16 against Wales and 13-23 against England. A 13-13 draw with Ireland and a 26-13 victory over Scotland offered a glimmer of hope, but it didn’t prove enough and France finished the tournament in last place.

The 2014 tournament didn’t offer the French followers much either. An unconvincing win over Scotland with losses to Ireland and England seemed reflective of 2013. But against England, France did play with the flair they seemed to have lost, running the ball from deep and offloading at will. But the history books will only show they allowed England to score over 50 points.

What is to blame for this decline? The coaches can’t take all the blame. Lièvremont coached Les Blues to a grand slam even if he did lose the dressing room afterwards. Saint-Andre may have installed a game plan not suitable for the players, but with the likes of Dusatoir as captain, the players have the skill to change it on the pitch.

The lack of young French-born players coming through the club system is also a factor. If you look at Toulon, not many French players appear in their first XV, with Bastareaud probably being the most noteworthy. The billionaire owner doesn’t seem too worried about this and is making his Top 14 side as comical as his work in terms of their signings. If they continue the way they are going, other teams won’t have enough players to field a team against them.

Clermont have the luxury of having the best centre partnership in France with Rougerie and Fofana, which benefits the national team. Having Bastareud play inside of an English or Australian player doesn’t.

A shining light in all of this is this year’s Top 14 champions. Stade Francais fielded ten French born players in their final against Clermont Auvergne last week. They had also beaten Toulon in the semi-final to get there.

But winning a Top 14 is a lot different to winning a world cup. It is a different standard of play, with a much faster pace and higher intensity. Not all of those ten players are of international standard either.

It would suit the French team if the world cup didn’t take place until the following year as Stade Francais could really test themselves against Europe’s finest. These players would benefit massively from weekly games against European giants, which would in turn benefit the national team.

Taking nothing away from the ten months of hard graft it took to win the Top 14, Stade Francais’ progress will be tested in next year’s Champion’s Cup. But the national team will be tested in September. They need a coach who will select the best players in their respective positions, and install a game plan that players are comfortable with.

Ireland, Italy, Canada and Romania will be France’s opposition in the pool stages so getting out of the group is the least they should expect. But that aside, big clubs must follow suit and adopt Stade Fancais’ practice for the future benefit of French rugby.