Giles the prophet returns with new gospel

Andrew Longmore suggests that Britain can learn much from the homecoming of a traveller
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THERE IS a parable in the career of Kelvin Giles. Persuaded by promises of a blank sheet of paper, a decent climate and a government committed to sport, Giles left the United Kingdom in 1980 to take up a post at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. He was in on the ground floor of a structure which has been widely regarded as the focal point of Australia's sporting renaissance. At the time, with Australia's inept performance at the 1976 Olympic Games a source of national embarrassment, the Australians were not too proud to ask a Pom for help. Giles was the institute's first director of track and field.

Twenty years on, he has returned to find his own country still chewing over the same old chestnuts, still debating the place of sport within our society, still paying lip service to sporting success and arguing over the concept, let alone the reality, of a national institute of sport. "Australia bit the bullet on this 20 years ago," he says, when Malcolm Fraser, the Prime Minister, decreed that sport was a symbol of national identity and bulldozed his way through parochial sensibilities in pursuit of victories and gold medals.

No one who watched the Australians rout the Pakistan side at Lord's in June or bludgeon the French into submission at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff last month could question the astonishing rise of the green and gold. And the 2000 Olympics in Sydney are still to come.

Giles left the institute in 1985 and later became right-hand man to Wayne Bennett, the Alex Ferguson of Australian rugby league, who presided over the remarkable rise of the Brisbane Broncos, the first privately owned rugby league club in Australia. His knowledge of every aspect of the Australian system is unsurpassed. He knows the short cuts the Australians failed to take, can pinpoint the many mistakes they made and, refreshingly, does not believe that all things Australian come with halo attached.

Yet, on return to the UK, do we welcome him with open arms as the Australians did all those years ago? Do we bother to find out what he knows and strive to apply his unique experience to the wastelands of the nation's sport? Do we answer his faxes, reply to his letters? Yes, we do. "Dear Mr Giles, Thank you for your interest, yours, UK Sports Council."

Old habits, as Kelvin Giles is rapidly finding out, die hard. Outsiders talking a strange vocabulary of "performance engineers" and "performance models" in an accent half Solihull, half Sydney, prompt bewilderment not curiosity. But Giles's model of performance, developed initially in Brisbane and now being used within severe financial and cultural restraints in his role as director of performance for the London Broncos, can apply as equally to individuals as organisations, as readily to Aston Villa as Barnet. In Brisbane, Bennett would outline the type of athlete he wanted and Giles would find and train them.

"It's like setting up a mini-Australian Institute within a club, from identifying the best talent at grass-roots level right through to the top professionals, providing them with the best surgeons, the best psychologists, the best biomechanists. It's about setting down roots into a community, educating athletes in the language of performance and establishing an independent framework of performance so that no matter how many times you changed the manager, the infrastructure of performance would still be in place. At the moment, when the manager leaves, the whole backroom edifice crumbles as well.

"The problem is that we are behind with the vocabulary here. I've been told there are maybe three physios in football who would understand the language of models for football speed, football endurance and injury prevention. In Australia there would be 10,000."

At a county club like Hampshire, for example, the model could be used for identifying and training fast bowlers. That means establishing contacts with local clubs, teaching them good biomechanic techniques from early in their careers to prevent unnecessary injury, developing flexibility, power and mental stamina. Perfecting the outswinger would be the province of the specialist cricket coach. These were the basic tenets of the Australian Cricket Academy.

"I've got a nephew aged 16 who has absolutely immersed in rugby union," Giles says. "He looks as though he will be a hooker or a prop. We should be looking at the typical injuries he might get and give him a performance programme to work on to strengthen the right areas.

"There's a lot of sensationalised stuff at the moment about the Australian system. Campo [David Campese] saying `Come on Britannia, you no longer rule the waves' and all that, but nothing they are doing is peculiarly Australian. They're having the same debates about the crisis of sport in schools and the video game generation, but when they identify talent they use it.

"It's a matter of finding the threads that hold the whole thing together, that provide the continuity and reliability of performance. Above all, it's about questioning assumptions, whether that's Kevin Keegan, the Rugby Football Union or Barnet. There are professional clubs in every sport doing a good job, but with a little tweak they could be doing it so much better, and the beauty of it is that we don't have to wait another 10 years while they get the structure right. We can sow little seeds right away." Surely the least we can do is give Kelvin Giles a listen. Who knows, we might learn something.