It is about now in a Rugby world cycle, where just over 40 days and nights in the war-torn wilderness still hold that the truth is beginning to emerge. There is only as much iron as you can pump in a gym: if someone hoping to lift the Webb Ellis Cup is not in the moment, they never will. You can't fake it at a World Cup and expect to have a realistic chance.
With a series of warm-up tests starting soon for all European nations, those looking for clues to the prospects of Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and others should not focus purely on August & # 39; s results. Four years ago, for example, England saw French and Ireland at Twickenham before hosting the 2015 tournament and still finishing in the pool stages. Conversely, Scotland lost against the French and Irish, yet came within a midge-whisker of the semi-finals.
Warming scorelines can also be distorted by variables: buses protecting their star men, conditioning experts trying to make sure everyone peaks in October and early November rather than August. If you really want to know how a team is doing, it is probably a better bet to study their off-field body language or calmly consult landlords in nearby public houses.
Because, as an excellent new book based on former Wales players' first-hand experience makes clear, championship rugby teams are built just as much on camaraderie and confidence under pressure as on grease attempts and mineral water. Ross Harries, the highly respected Welsh rugby broadcaster, has spoken to countless international staff about their memories of representing their country and the result, Behind the dragon, is a vibrant, revealing and often fun read.
The topic of World Cup preparation is the source of particularly rich material. Twenty years ago, for example, Wales was hosting the entire event. Assisting with the leadership was Steve Black, a central figure in Jonny Wilkinson's career and a motivational guru like no other. Blackie was universally popular, but his habit of staying up all night writing 30 personal letters to each member of the team sometimes turned him off during the day. Craig Quinnell recalls being asked to hold a session on a treadmill without checking how long he should continue to run. "Twenty minutes later you blow out of your ass and think," When is he going to stop this bloody thing? "Then you looked around and he was asleep."
It was also Black who decided that Wales should actively try to feel like world makers before the 1999 World Cup even started. During a Brecon camp, Quinnell remembers players being asked to climb the stairs in the school cricket pavilion and greet an imaginary crowd before raising the imaginary trophy. Some of the squad bought the dutiful idea, but more cynical teammates became less easily persuaded. They were proven right: Wales duly lost to Samoa in the pot and were beaten 24-9 by Australia in the quarterfinals.
Before 2003, it was a similarly unfortunate story. Before the tournament, Wales were beaten 43-9 in Cardiff by a virtual second team from England, who had barely touched a ball and spent most of their time running up hills outside Pontypridd and sand dunes near Bridgend. Then, their then coach, Steve Hansen, had the idea of drawing the team into self-catering accommodation to encourage them to cook for each other and as a result tie closer. He underestimated the desire of spouses to save some of their food budget by buying cheap baked beans in bulk; after a week of beans on toast, it was found that some players had lost so much weight that the cunning plan had been tied.
Harries, who shares the same birth date as Tom Jones and has a similarly fine-tuned ear to an evocative Welsh yarn, is also resuming the build-up to the 2007 tournament, with England engaging Wales 62-5 in a famous one-sided warm-up fixture. Not much happened in the small French coastal town of Pornichet where Wales lived, prompting wing Mark Jones to lend a local sheep and hide it in Dwayne Peel's room while he was at a press conference. Not only were the video footage of Peel back to his wrecked space comedy gold, but the sheep were also found to have fleas, leaving the itch half itch and scratching for several days.
Wales duly lost to Fiji but continued to give England a scare. Ever, interestingly enough, they have outnumbered their neighbors on the biggest stage. In both 2011 and 2015, it was not their warm-up that catapulted them to the latter stages, but really brutal summer training camps organized by Warren Gatland in places like Poland, Qatar and Switzerland. As Dan Biggar says in the book: “We are a country where the easy opportunity is to be negative, to look for excuses and to come up short. The Gats refused to accept it. No matter the circumstances … we would find a way to win. "
And then for the summer of 2019, which so far has seen Wales sail it out again in the Swiss Alps and England conducting the first of two warm-weather training camps in Italy. Of course, everyone needs some competitive rugby, but in many ways die is already thrown. Who wins at Twickenham this Sunday and in Cardiff the following week, history suggests it will be a red herring.
Behind the Dragon: Playing Rugby For Wales by Ross Harries (Polaris Publishing)
Problems at the mill
The controversy surrounding the Yorkshire Carnegie has taken another turn, with Richmond among those complaining about the Rugby Football Union's decision, as it stands, to allow the financially troubled club to start the upcoming home season of the championship. Richmond clearly has a vested interest in the affair, after being relegated last season while Yorkshire stayed up, but is convinced that clubs that spend beyond their means and subsequently go down and burn should not profit of more responsibly rivals. "It cannot benefit the game's best long-term interests that clubs can buy over £ 6m of debt and cancel players' contracts," said Peter Moore, a Richmond director. "We are very disappointed with the RFU decision, which we will ask to be reviewed." Sorry the saga is not done yet.
And another thing
Australia plays New Zealand in Perth on Saturday with a lot of people watching long distance. To date, the All Blacks have not set the Rugby Championship on fire after registering a hard-fought 20-16 win against Argentina and a 16-16 draw against South Africa. The death of the legendary Sir Brian Lochore has further dampened spirits in New Zealand; now would be an excellent time for Steve Hansen's side to transform the national mood.
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