Owen Sheers: The poet on the touchline

When poet and novelist Owen Sheers began his year with the Welsh rugby team, he didn't know the result – in any sense. It proved more dramatic than the writer, or the players, expected.

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The Independent Culture

When I started my residency with the Welsh Rugby Union at the beginning of last year, I had no idea what I would write at the end of it. This unknown element was crucial. I wasn't interested in a knee-jerk residency where writers respond immediately to recent events. Nor was I prepared to outline the form my response would take. Such pre-planned or instantaneous writing seems, to me, to run counter to the very idea of embedding a creative artist within an institution.

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Time is what writers work with best; it is their privilege and their method. Time to think, look, listen and invest what they find with meaning. Time to work into language the concoction of ephemeral feelings, thoughts and experiences sensed, if not known, by those with whom they've been placed. All of which is why such positions are also often a risk. Their success turns upon the willingness of a writer to commit publicly to an unknown work, and of an organisation to allow the "looking beyond looking" that is the artist's gaze.

This is where I began with the Welsh team - with looking. My first objective was simply to observe and to listen; to soak up as much as possible of the technical language, idiolect and tone of the squad in their training camp and on match days through the 2012 Six Nations championship. It was also to experience, at their shoulders, the weekly transitions between the private and public orbits of their lives; from the team room to the press room, from the training pitch to the stadium.

Over those first weeks I resisted asking the players and coaches how they felt about these transitions, or about how they coped with the pressures of professional sport. I just continued to watch and listen. I knew that the questions would eventually begin to flow the other way. What was I doing? What was my opinion? Individuals would begin to open up, insights would be offered. It's at this moment that a writer begins to become absorbed into their subject. In terms of the broader project this is necessary, of course. But it also tends to blur the focus. Precisely because of this increased intimacy, the organisation and individuals are never again as exposed.

A national sports team is, by its very nature, a tight-knit entity. There are sacred spaces and a general wariness about outsiders. For this reason my initial approach of pure observation proved an effective method of gaining access. For a period, just being there, turning up, was enough. Sportsmen have a heightened sense of lateral vision and I knew, even if I was just watching a training session from a balcony, or standing on the sidelines of a Captain's Run, that my presence would be noticed and that my acceptance would be advanced by another degree.

But this observational distance had a literary purpose too. My aspiration for whatever I would write was to get under the skin of rugby in Wales, to use lyricism to excavate what it means for individuals and for the country. I knew the best way to do this was to see it all as strange again, to view the game and its emotional and psychological effect with fresh eyes.

My problem was that both, as a fan and as a player, I'd known rugby in Wales since the age of seven. I'd played the sport for 20 years and followed Wales through their roller-coaster fortunes for the last 30. When it came to rugby and Wales, my eyes were anything but fresh.

Which is why that quality of distance became so essential. It only took a couple of training sessions for what had initially seemed surprising to begin to feel normalised - the ex-police unit cryotherapy van leaking dry ice in a country lane; the brightly-coloured training kit scattered about the pitch like the toys of a giant toddler; the massive inspirational banners preaching to the players that "Yesterday is in the Past". The human mind, eye and ear are highly adaptive. Our natural instinct is to assimilate new experiences. Yet as a writer within the Wales camp, while my presence had to feel ever more "normal", I had to resist that normality from tainting my vision, from unfreshening my eyes.

That the material I was gathering would take the form of my book Calon only began to evolve towards the end of the 2012 Six Nations. I was the writer, not the journalist, in residence. Because of this I'd only ever been willing to consider a prose account if a suitably novelistic narrative could be identified. As Wales, in the wake of their World Cup disappointment, won game after game in the Six Nations, such a possible narrative began to reveal itself. Some of the players even suggested so themselves.

"There you go Shakespeare," Ryan Jones said as he left the field after Wales beat England. "There's another chapter for you." And he was right. If Wales could secure a third Grand Slam in eight years, there was a story to be told. But a novelistic narrative wasn't all I required. When you write about sport that most basic of story-telling engines - the question "what happens next?" - is taken away from you.

The outcome is already known to your readers, that 80 minutes of pure theatre transfigured by the final whistle into the archived past. Other novelistic devices are required to keep a reader turning the page: structure, character arcs, emotional detail; these are what must provide the draw.

Once Wales had won the Grand Slam, I knew what I wanted as my structure: a multi-perspective account of the last match against France, from the moment the players woke to the dying celebrations of that night. But such a structure could only work if those other novelistic elements could also be woven through it, and to create these the nature of my research would have to change. Watching would no longer be enough. I now needed to get close to the players and the coaches.

It was Wales's summer tour to Australia which made this switch in research possible. On tour, time opens up within a squad environment; in hotels, on buses, in planes and airports. The schedule is often relentless, with boredom one of the greatest challenges. Players and coaches who'd previously been too absorbed in the intensity of the Six Nations were now able to talk to me at length, to reflect and remember.

Distilled by distance and conversation, I was able to piece together that last Grand Slam match through the eyes of players, coaches, groundsmen, kitmen and board members. In travelling to the other side of the world, I was able to see and experience that day in Cardiff more clearly.

The Australian tour also made Calon possible in another way. The tour itself was the mirror image of Wales's Six Nations success. The team lost all three matches, two of which were theirs for the winning. Within months, the squad had gone from Grand Slam to Whitewash. It was the first time I'd seen them in the wake of such defeat, and while as a fan it was heart-breaking, as a writer it was fascinating.

A recent review claimed Calon would have been a stronger book if it had ended on Wales's Grand Slam success. But for me it was those defeats in Australia which made the book whole. Without them a massive aspect of professional rugby would have remained unacknowledged - that it is the prospect of defeat which fuels a team as much as the promise of victory.

In Calon I quote Thumper Phillips, the Wales team manager, saying "It's either the wedding game or the funeral game with us, nothing in between." The losses of the Australian tour enabled me to encompass the full spectrum of Thumper's statement; to witness a young squad in a state of mourning as well as celebration. Having entered my year with Wales looking at a blank sheet of paper, their Grand Slam at home had given me a story to tell. But it was that whitewash abroad which gave me a book and, most importantly, which made it true.

Owen Sheers' 'Calon: a journey to the heart of Welsh rugby' is published by Faber & Faber. Owen Sheers will be appearing at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival on 2 March; www.bathlitfest.org.uk