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The Way We Were

The Way We Were

Stuart Barnes looks at how things have channged in the modern game

Ten years ago we amateurs could not even dream of today’s extensive build-up to a Test match – and a few would actually have considered such a week’s preparation more of a nightmare – well, we were still amateurs with jobs to hold down.

And the International Rugby Football Board were determined to keep things as amateur as possible, with teams banned from meeting more than 48 hours before a game. But we made it to our base in south-west London on Wednesday night, marginally earlier than the committee and their wives gathered for a home Five Nations match at the Park Lane Hilton.

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I had subjected myself to a “Greta Garbo” phase of wanting to be alone, or at least as far from the England camp as possible, for five years from 1987 to 1992 (with a brief interruption to tour Australia). The improvements made in match preparation under Geoff Cooke between 1987 and 1993 turned this particular head.

The 1980s are a forgotten era of failure, a time of well-intentioned cock-ups, though the seeds for the Cooke era of ruthless professionalism were sown. The modern England can be traced back to the introduction of a specialist athletics coach. Power as much as technique has been the byword for English success. It started with a man called Tom McNab, a former Olympic coach who looked at the material he had to mould in an Algarve training camp and said, in his best Scottish accent, head shaking in Calvinistic contempt: “Yoo cannae fire cannons from a canoo.” Rory Underwood, the team teetotaller, was the one man excused from criticism.

“Spikes” were what front-row forwards did to the drinks of the backs and lactic acid was something which we avoided, thinking it a cross between milk and LSD. All that had changed by 1993. The Monday night sessions in Stourbridge of the mid-1980s had been replaced with an IRB rule-bending Wednesday night session at the Stoop, home of Harlequins.

Under dim lighting the forwards practised their set-piece work, while the backs rehearsed moves and sharpened their defensive drills against the A team backs. As long as backs and forwards didn’t mingle it did not technically constitute a team session. That sometimes set an unfortunate tone.

This was demanding stuff, straight from work to international preparation. Concentration was the challenge and after a day of work and England training, was it any surprise that a few lads stopped off at the estimable Roebuck pub on Richmond Hill en route to the team hotel, the Petersham?

The hotel was far more accessible than the current team’s palatial residence. There was a pub above and below on the hill and for the London-based players there was the option of spending the Wednesday night at home, though why anyone didn’t want to be at the Petersham was a mystery to me.

It boasts an artist’s view of the Thames and green space all around, from river walks to Richmond Park with its herds of deer. Twickenham beckoned in the distance. The players were treated as we thought internationals should be. Whatever sandwiches a player required were available 24 hours a day, refuelling the spent energy. (Consumption varied.)

There would be breakfast, a team meeting to determine the objectives of the day’s sessions and then the duty boys, always a pair of replacements, would usher the troops on to the bus for the 10-minute or so journey to the training ground, more often than not the Stoop. If you believe Budge Pountney, England were more than a decade in advance of Scottish preparation.

The soft-drinks sponsors’ products were littering the training ground. Players had developed the culture of replacing fluids. It was quite a shock to realise men were drinking this saccharin stuff for the right reasons, and not as an excuse to take a break from training. The break came at lunch where, again, the squad’s dietary regime was carefully nurtured. Apples and oranges abounded at the front of the bus as we made the journey back to the Petersham through midday traffic for a pasta lunch, before a return to the bus and the field.

Less sophisticated was the scrummage to grab the various sponsors’ products that inevitably would be lying in wait in the team room of the hotel. As Courage and Scrumpy Jack were among the team sponsors, the boys were ready with their car keys to load those 24-can cases to safety. “Dick Best always used to get mine because I couldn’t fly back north with it,” Dewi Morris still moans.

He also had reason to complain about the rooms at the team hotel. Many had E M Forster views, but all bar that of the captain were twins and if you drew the short straw and a snorer as a room partner it was a bad start to a Test weekend. On the Friday night before Scotland in 1993, Morris slept on the couch in the team massage room, the smell of unguents sweet to his nostrils.

The hotel a la carte menu was lovingly perused every evening along with the wine list, but by 1993 professionalism had gone far enough down the road to have the team sectioned off from the residents. The sight of excessive orange juice and fizzy drink on the dining tables would have turned a non-sportsman’s stomach.

The days of cooked breakfasts on match morning were already in the past. The duty boys gave the kitchen any orders for pre-match breakfast specials on the Friday night. I wish I could say the demand was for extra black pudding but that would be a lie. The long march to professionalism – albeit a hiccuping one – was under way.