You have all won a World Cup, you have played at eight tournaments collectively and have a combined 262 caps between you – what are the biggest changes that you have seen in rugby union since the start of your careers?
Jonny Wilkinson: In 1997, it was just out of amateur and you could feel that transition coming. There was no one playing at that time who was straight out of school. Everyone had jobs and played rugby because they wanted to enjoy it. It was very different. When I went into my first changing room, I didn’t speak for three months. I spoke on the field, but in the changing room I only spoke when spoken to. There were internationals like Inga Tuigamala, Pat Lam, Dean Ryan who I daren’t speak to for three months and then I was so pleased when one of them came over and said ‘Are you OK?’. I loved that.
Brad Thorn: I call it the two-year rule: shut up for two years before you open your mouth. After a couple of years you might learn to speak. For me, in 2000 I came across to rugby and it was still early days. It has really come on as a fully firing professional league.
Bryan Habana: The game has changed a lot since even I started out in 2004, particularly with the physicality of the young players coming in. The game in South Africa has got a lot more professional from a lot earlier age. In South Africa, they are having video sessions at schoolboy level now, which is crazy. Hopefully the core ethics of rugby will never be lost. I was part of the era where a lot of amateurs were finishing up. As Jonny said, as a youngster when you went into the dressing room you didn’t speak and wanted to make sure you carried the seniors’ bags through the airport. Now the game has got so professional so quickly that some of those core values might be disappearing.
Has that professionalism and physicality made rugby a better spectacle? Speaking before that final round of Six Nations game, the New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said rugby was at risk of becoming boring.
JW: I definitely think it is better than in past days. I have looked at some of the games I have played in and been like ‘What the hell was that?’ Literally awful stuff. But there was a time when I can remember when everyone would talk about a few guys around the league, every team would be saying ‘Have you seen so and so, he’s absolutely massive’. Nowadays every team has got five or six of them. That is going to mean bigger contacts but also because of the pressure from the professionalism there is more riding on every game. Relegation and promotion is death of clubs now. There’s so much riding on it that you can only do what’s right. I played in a team [Toulon] where we would have liked to have done things differently but when it came down to it we had to do it this way to win. It wasn’t everyone’s choice but you have to do to it win. When it comes down to the big games, you walk away as winner and you will be remembered forever; you play great and lose you are not. That’s the pressure.
BT: If you look at the last round of the Six Nations, everyone knew they had to play. They were free to play rugby and you saw three high-scoring games. But to come back to what Jonny is saying, when you look at the World Cup finals, you didn’t see attractive rugby. The 2011 World Cup final, I was playing in it and I remember thinking ‘This is rubbish’. Same thing in 2003 and 2007, because it was so tight. There’s so much pressure to win. There’s not much risk factor, you just have to take the points when you can. The game is still a good spectacle when there’s an opportunity to play some footy. As Jonny was saying, when it comes down to it and you need to win a game then you play the style to get the job done.
BH: When you say ‘Is it still a spectacle?’ I don’t think we have ever heard of a rugby game that is 0-0 after 80 minutes so when you compare it to soccer then a lot more happens. The one thing that has played a big part and where the game is going backwards is that there is so much being played. You have got Top 14, you have Champions Cup, you have got Super Rugby, you have got sevens and international rugby. Where’s your spectator value? Is it in the most attractive rugby? The workload of players with so much rugby being delivered to the world needs to be handled better.
The International Rugby Players’ Association recently called for mandatory 12-14 week off-season period – would you be in support of that proposal?
BH: That would be ideal. The biggest problem that rugby has to make that happen is a global season. You are always going to get the issue of the summer and autumn tours and, with television rights being sold 4-5 years down the line, I can’t see it happening.
BT: Speaking from a league perspective, the model they have where you play Super League in the summer works well. They play some good footy here in the summer when the conditions are better. The other thing I like from league is that we play a lot of footy but it is compacted into 6-8 months and then we usually get six-eight weeks off, which would seem crazy to rugby guys who get four weeks off at the most. Having those eight weeks off means you are excited about training again as a player and then you have a two-month pre-season. That means every year in league, the product gets better. Young guys get time to rest, recover and refresh. They can do their strength and conditioning along with their skill work so that every year the package gets better and better. I agree with what Bryan is saying because when I look at rugby, with young guys coming in, they are playing 10-11 month seasons, they don’t get the right break.
JW: The key point there is the pre-season, if you don’t get that then you never get that point where the pressure is off and you can actually properly work on something. It is all mental. Physically, if you are not injured, you can pick it up in a week or two. But mentally, you need to have that break where it is just knowing there’s nothing in front of you. That’s very different from being told you can have a few days off but we need you back in. If you had two months you can imagine just dropping that whole weight. You can be someone else for two months.
BT: I agree with exactly what you are saying. The mental side of it is massive. If it is too close you can’t drop it. I don’t know about you guys, but usually it takes two weeks into the off season where I finally feel that load come off my shoulders. You don’t realise that pressure is on you, but then two weeks in you can actually feel yourself chilling out.
JW: But then two weeks later you are back in.
So how do you deal with the pressure involved in a World Cup year, particularly, in England’s case, a home World Cup?
JW: It is a funny one because we have all been fortunate enough to win World Cups. Now that you have won it, you can look back on it differently than someone who hasn’t. Six months out from a World Cup, if you start thinking about how close it is then you are no longer the same player. It is a horrible balance. The only way to truly protect yourself and control everything is to let it go. Go out there and say this is all I have got because that puts you in a better state of mind for the next game and the next game. Then by the World Cup, you are ready to go. Dealing with pressure is having that constant evidence in front of your eyes of taking on big challenges and it becoming who you are, not what you do. I face challenges. I go out there and this what you get from me – it gets better and better. It is a difficult mindset, you have to get on with it. While you are playing, it was just about the next game. After the World Cup finals in 2003 and 2007, I was more worried about the next game because I figured I had so much to prove.
BT: After the 2011 World Cup, I was on the plane to Japan one week later. 13 days later I was playing in front of an empty stadium and getting beat by an ordinary Japanese team. Within about three weeks of Japan, I had almost forgotten about the World Cup. The guys who I had invested time with, like I have with Leicester Tigers right now, I feel a responsibility towards the fans, to my teammates and the jersey which has been worn before me. You can laugh off Japan but they brought me there and I like to give more than what I am paid. Within three weeks, I was passionately all for the cause of that. That World Cup was the grand final of grand finals but like Jonny was saying you move on to the next thing. You refocus. Professional rugby players, the game is almost like the sun and the weeks revolve around it. After 22 years, I still sit in a changing room getting nervous before a game.
Is there a single component that every World Cup winning team needs to have?
BH: I look back at 2007, what really worked was first of all meticulous planning from our coaching staff. From 2004 they had a plan for where they were heading in three years. Also in 2007, the experience within the team played a vital role – guys like John Smit, Victor Matfield, Os Du Randt. Percy Montgomery was absolutely phenomenal – accurate with the boot and clear-headed decision making throughout that tournament. We had a great team work ethic, which was utterly vital. Whether you were in the starting XV or a non-playing reserve, the work ethic laid down from our leaders within the team was absolutely non-negotiable. That drive from the senior players really rubbed off on the younger guys. A guy like Frans Steyn was 19 and we had Percy hammering at him day in, day out throughout that World Cup.
BT: I would agree with that. Experience and culture are key.
JW: It is a tightness and a cohesion and a togetherness, which is built on respect and experience but it is ultimately driven and feeds on belief. All of those things that Bryan says, give you a reason to believe. You have got guys who have done it before and you hear them talking and it makes you look and think ‘Of course we can do this’. You look at the young guys coming through with incredible talent and you think ‘Of course we can do this’.
That’s the job of every single person whether that’s the guy in charge of the bus schedule, you have got to make it right and make it work for the team. If it is the senior players, making sure they do their job, get the right words in and lead from the front. Whether it is the young players to add that energy at every session and a level of respect. Whatever it is, it does not have to be perfect but you have to have a valid reason for believing why you can do it. You know if you are cheating yourself. You can be in the changing room before a game shouting ‘We can do this’ and everyone goes ‘Yeah, you’re right’. It’s not that. It is knowing why you can do this.
I’ll tell you why, because he’s one of the best players in the world, so’s he, so’s he, he’s been there and done everything, no one ever gets through him, we have beaten these guys already, our coaches love what they do, we know we are most professional and the fittest team, our facilities are the best – whatever it is at the end of it you know if those reasons are valid.
Can England be that team?
Of course they can. Look at those examples I have just given you. Yes they have got experience, yes they have got youth coming through, yes their facilities are wonderful, yes they have got the coaching talent. It’s all there. I spoke to Mike Brown and the way they talk about each other and you realise these guys are more than just teammates.
When you have a team that is full and so together it means that energy of the crowd can hit it and move it. If you are disjointed and have holes in your team then that wind of the crowd just blows through you.
When the crowd put the energy behind the team, England will feed off it because they are so tight.
Land Rover Ambassadors Jonny Wilkinson, Brad Thorn and Bryan Habana were speaking at the launch of ‘We Deal In Real’, Land Rover’s Rugby World Cup 2015 campaign which will champion the people that are at the heart and soul of the game by putting grassroots clubs on the global stage. www.landrover.com/rugby @LandRoverRugby #WeDealInReal
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