Olympic Lessons for Stuart Lancaster’s England
Success, in any sporting sphere, is a culture that thrives on intense, unwavering commitment. Team GB’s marvellous medal haul, gathered over a glorious fortnight at London 2012, was no different. However, as adoring spectators, hopelessly drunk on euphoric pride, all we saw was the Olympic endgame – the fruition of an unforgiving four-year slog.
Sometimes there were glimpses of more. The gold that Katherine Grainger won alongside Anna Watkins in the double sculls was drenched in heart-wrenching emotion because of the three silvers that had agonisingly preceded it. Likewise, Alan Campbell’s gutsy bronze seemed more special because he left his heart and soul out on Eton Dorney’s waters. The Coleraine man did not flog himself every Christmas Day for nothing.
More often than not, though, our heroes’ hardships stayed behind closed doors. A month ago at the Aviva London Grand Prix, Mo Farah waited track-side long after the crowd had left Crystal Palace. Following a straightforward win in the 5,000 metres, there was still work to do.
Our long-distance legend churned out 3,000 more metres at a steady pace, before squeezing in four sets of 200 metres sprints – each in under 26 seconds. A deserted stadium in eerie silence – that was where his golds were won. That was why I will never forget being at the Olympic Park on Saturday night, screaming for all my lungs were worth.
In this weekend’s edition of The Rugby Paper, Neil Back speaks candidly about his feelings watching on – often in tears – as Great Britain excelled in the home spotlight. Ever a stickler for dedication, Edinburgh’s newly-appointed forwards coach revelled in the grit, determination and ruthless drive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also highlighted some parallels with the Rugby World Cup victory 2003.
With a thinly-veiled swipe at the class of 2011 – “lack of sleep and alcohol consumption isn’t always conducive to high performance” – Back suggested that Johnson, Dallaglio, Greenwood and co. became the best in the world because of unerring self-management. So overpowering was their desire to capture the Webb Ellis trophy that they needed no curfews or encouragement. Quite simply they felt they were letting themselves, their teammates and their family down if they lapsed.
Of course, head coach Sir Clive Woodward was an extremely sturdy guide if any of the squad did falter, and Back suggested that his influence in the Olympic effort – from the lofty title of Director of Elite Performance – was crucial. As the presence of an eye coach in England’s backroom staff proved, Woodward knows the value of every single ‘one-percenter’. His sway on rugby may now have been reduced to a(n often nauseating) column in the Sunday Telegraph, but his attention to detail must be heeded.
Take the cycling stars of the velodrome, for instance, who plundered seven out of ten golds on offer at the Games. Dave Brailsford, their guru who also masterminded Team Sky’s domination of the Tour de France, is, without doubt, Woodward-side of anally retentive. A ‘marginal gains’ sub-team compels the likes of Sir Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Laura Trott to wash their hands properly, sleep in the right position and spend hours in wind tunnels refining their body shape. After the men’s keirin event, upon becoming the most decorated British Olympian with a seventh medal, Hoy revealed that a 35-hour per week training schedule leaves him too spent to walk to the shops. Even for Bran Flakes.
It should be said that Britain’s ‘money for medals’ funding model means that cycling is rolling in cash – £26 million since the Beijing Games, to be exact – but the principles are certainly similar to the most successful rugby sides from these shores. Take Wales’ masochistic schedule in Spala, Poland over the past two years. A Grand Slam and a World Cup semi-final was unlikely before Sam Warburton’s men were steeled with an extra dimension of physical fitness.
Back finished his interview on a hopeful note, praising Stuart Lancaster for re-locating an industrious, unselfish ethic. The effervescent, innovative Paul Stridgeon will definitely not let the conditioning of Chris Robshaw’s men slip in the slightest, as a punishing pre-season at Loughborough University has already shown.
However, if the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is that the British public do actually prefer winners to venerable runners-up. Who saw that coming? In any case, even with the might of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand to come this autumn, second-best will not do. 2015 will come around as quickly as the Olympics has gone away. Lancaster must get results.