Foresight leads to glimpse of summit

As England prepare to meet Scotland for the Grand Slam, Tony Underwood recounts the hard work and planning necessary to get them this far
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The Independent Online
Three months ago, we were in the foothills. I guess now we have reached base camp. One more win in the Five Nations and six in South Africa and we will have climbed our own Everest. As with any such mission, a great deal of time is needed to prepare if you are to succeed.

The roots of our campaign were laid in the early part of this season. Lessons had been learned on our tour of South Africa in the summer. We knew we would have to change radically our approach and style of play to succeed in winning the World Cup. To enable us to so develop, the crucial step was to meet and train as a squad more often in an attempt to nurture something akin to a club atmosphere.

So in the run-up to our first game against Romania, we met once a fortnight at Marlow RFC. This, interspersed with club training and a week in Lanzarote over the New Year, led to a hectic few months. The preparation has been comprehensive, as has been the back-up to help us achieve our goal. A team manager, doubling as head coach, assistant coach, press liaison officer, technical administrator (no, I do not know what that means, either), consultant, doctor, physio, masseur, fitness adviser and psychologist. Training sessions have been shortened and constantly modified as we determine which areas of our game need working on.

The level of understanding throughout the team has improved - understanding of what we are trying to achieve, to prove there is a method to our madness.

Defences these days have become so organised that each player has to be aware of what his role is and how that ties in to our goal of breaching it. For example, the forwards have to be able to sense the right time to release the ball to the backs. So often in the past it was simply a case of driving the ball forward as far as it would go and giving it to the backs only when all momentum was lost. Static ball with a full back line plus a few donkeys in front of you is not something we backs dream about.

Therefore we have worked on our driving mauls to develop quick ruck ball as our dynamic ball-carriers break off or go through the heart of the maul. As a back, it is far easier running on to a ball that you can easily see when it is placed on the ground. While in a maul, the ball is hidden from view and therefore it takes an element of guesswork to time your run.

With all the possession that our forwards are claiming, the criticism has been that perhaps the backs should have scored more tries. I have already explained part of our defence, but delivery of quality ball comes to nought if our running lines and appreciation of space are not of the highest order. Our work has centred on this in the last few months.

This season has also set us a huge challenge mentally. England have been capable of putting together a good win every now and then, such as against New Zealand in 1993 and against South Africa in the first Test in 1994. However, we have then gone on to struggle to maintain that level of performance in subsequent games.

The Five Nations and the World Cup require nothing short of back-to-back, top- drawer performances to win through. This was the challenge before us: to develop a mental toughness that translates to good performances whatever the opposition, wherever we are and whether we are playing for a trophy or not. This Saturday provides no such problem.