The Breakdown | From Telfer to Erasmus: how rugby coaches inspire players to greatness
Rugby is primarily a game of deeds, not words, but there are some stirring exceptions. Fifty years ago this month, for example, a group of players sat in the Park Lane hotel in London, waiting for the wine waiter to refill their glasses and for their perceptive, thought-provoking coach to give his keynote address. “I want each one of you to be your own man,” said Carwyn James, issuing what amounted to a pre-tour sermon to his soon-to-be-immortalised 1971 British & Irish Lions squad. “Express yourself not as you would at the office for the next three months but as you would at home.
“I don’t want you Irishmen to pretend to be English, or you English to think you are Celts, or for Scotsmen to be anything less than Scottish to the core.”
If the sinews remain unstiffened, how about the impassioned words of Jim Telfer, which bungee jump off page 219 of a compelling new book, This Is Your Everest, by Tom English and Peter Burns, about the fabled 1997 Lions tour of South Africa. “This is your fucking Everest, boys,” growled Telfer, addressing the semi-circle of forwards satsitting in front of him in Cape Town. “Being picked for the Lions is the easy bit. To win for the Lions in a Test match is the ultimate.”
Every bit as powerful was his timeless payoff. “Nobody’s going to do it for you. You have to find your own solace, your own drive, your own ambition, your own inner strength because the moment’s arriving for the greatest game of your fucking lives.”
Some claim this kind of stuff is mostly outdated, that modern rugby players need little extra stimulation, that less is more before big games nowadays. Maybe, for some, it is. But as every successful director of rugby knows, the aspiring coach who fails to connect emotionally with their flock will struggle to win consistently. To quote the former athletics coach Frank Dick: “Coaching requires strength both in technical skills and people skills. No matter how strong you are in the technical, without the people you will be ineffective.”
In the frequently pre-programmed, homogenous modern game the value of coaches who refuse simply to follow the herd has rarely been higher. Dipping into this newspaper’s archives (James was once a Guardian columnist) it is fascinating to revisit some of the Welsh guru’s thoughts on how best to play rugby and, crucially, the open-mindedness needed to prosper. “The most telling of any pre-match team-talk consists of just three words: ‘Think! Think! Think!’” he wrote.
He was similarly ahead of his time in skewering supposedly useful innovations. “This new midfield ‘crash-ball’ is disaster – hunks of manhood with madness in their eyes, battering-ram bulldozers happy to be picked off on the gain-line by just-as-large hunks from the opposing side. For what? Just to do it all over again.”
The equally great David Foot, who also graced these pages for years, once penned an inch-perfect essay on his good friend that appeared in his outstanding book Fragments of Idolatry. How about this for a description of Carwyn’s voice. “It was musical and sweetly tuned, too calm, one would have thought, for the biting winds of an exposed touchline. That voice, fashioned by the hymnal, was rarely raised in rebuke at the expense of a player ….”
Or this, about the coach’s ability to converse with equal facility about literature, the arts or politics. “He loved talking, philosophising, paying homage to genius, whether he saw it at the time as Beethoven or Phil Bennett. It is probably true to say that Carwyn saw rugby, for all its physical whims, as a cerebral game.
“The brawling and blaspheming did not interest him. He encouraged his teams to play with their heads, to think what they had to do, to reject stereotyped notions and the temptations to opt for caution (and boredom). ‘Take a risk or two, make a few mistakes. As long as you are adventurers, I won’t mind.’”
Telfer’s style was appreciably different: more direct, more confrontational but no less motivational. It is instructive to be reminded in This Is Your Everest that, as a teacher, he had a keen appreciation of the power of silence in a group setting, regardless of the players involved. “Often in team talks I would say: ‘Sit and think about what you are going to do here today.’ I’d even say that with Melrose Under-18s.” The effect on Ireland’s Keith Wood was mesmeric: “It was a slightly out-of-body experience. He was a bit mad. He was. But he got it. Jeez, did he get it.”
The moral of the story? That the most enlightened coaches positively encourage players to think for themselves, to go above and beyond what they might regard as possible. Re-watching the footage of Rassie Erasmus in Chasing The Sun, the documentary about the 2019 World Cup-winning Springboks, is also to wonder if the blood-pumping energy of that old Living with Lions video is still fuelling South Africans of a certain vintage.
“They’re playing to put rugby on the map,” Erasmus tells his squad at one point, before their knockout showdown with Japan. “We’re playing to put a country together.”
Deeds matter, of course they do, but the right words at the right time can still have a profound impact.
This Is Your Everest, by Tom English and Peter Burns, is available to order at Polaris Publishing
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