Rugby Union: Building a team afraid of nothing

England's rugby union players have spent a strange four days training in Dartmouth. By David Llewellyn
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The Independent Online
THE MISSION, which they had no choice but to accept, was to protect the 57 old farts of the Rugby Football Union, whose security and welfare was under threat from an extremist terrorist organisation. And by all accounts the 35-strong England squad was successful.

The hypothetical scenario played out over the last couple of days all over sweltering Devon amid the trippers and holidaymakers was part of Clive Woodward's build- up for the World Cup, which gets under way in October.

Under the critical gaze of the Royal Marine Commandos England's fittest were put through their paces by this country's finest. The whole gruelling and mentally draining session was wrapped up yesterday at CTCRM Lympstone with an assault course that wound up after 17 taxing minutes with a flog through the evil-smelling mud of the Exe estuary for the five teams of seven.

If it was frustrating for Will Greenwood, Kyran Bracken and Paul Grayson to be left out of the "fun" because the England coach did not want to risk their recovery from injury, at least they were able to work on their fitness in the Lympstone gym. They were certainly spared a lot of toil, trials and tribulations.

Amid a lot of what was definitely estuarial English, the mud-caked men stumbled over the finishing line to be hosed down and think about what they had just gone through.

"When we were originally put into their hands our marine instructor told us, `You are mine for the next 36 hours'," Jerry Guscott said. "We had five hours' sleep after that."

Jason Leonard, who became a father a week ago last Monday, quipped: "I think I've had more sleep here than I have had at home for the last few days."

For all the hardship the players went through they were unanimous that the course had been fun. And also enlightening. "We have learned as much about ourselves as we have about each other," Guscott explained. "You are doing things under stress and you have to act together as a team."

Woodward emphasised the serious side of the exercise in which it is estimated the RFU have invested something in the region of pounds 15-20,000.

For that, the teams of players have been in helicopters and dropped over Dartmoor, abseiled and run down cliff faces on a rope at right angles, have been blindfolded and ushered through what they were told were subterranean passages where they negotiated all sorts of hazards (real and imagined); they had to deal with oil fires, organise an escape from a sinking submarine with water pouring on to to them at a serious rate, waded through a slimy stretch of water, negotiated a foam-filled tank, crawled through nightmare- tight tunnels and had to experience battle conditions when they finally "took back Twickenham" from the fringe terrorists.

Their physical fitness was never in question, although to a man the players agreed that the marines were far superior physically. "All credit to the boys who do this for a living," Leonard said. "They are trained to do this, they are very matter of fact about it all. It is very easy for them, but that is why they are some of the best."

The point of the exercise was to examine the players' ability to cope under stress, their mental fitness and communication skills under pressure.

"The team that is mentally strong, that has paid the most attention to detail before the tournament, is the one with the best chance of winning the World Cup," Woodward said.

Martin Johnson, the England captain, added: "It is about teamwork and trusting guys around you, in situations where you have been genuinely pretty scared, to help you through it.

"There have been guys who were scared of heights, guys who were claustrophobic," he paused, then grinned, "and guys who were afraid of oil fires. But it has all been good stuff."

One of those with a phobia is Jonny Wilkinson, who admitted: "I get vertigo and I really struggled with that for a while but I think I've conquered my fears."

Johnson added: "When you have found something is difficult or has been a little bit scary, to come through it successfully as part of a team gives you a good feeling. It's been brilliant, it certainly has relevance to our preparations for the World Cup. It's been a great four days concentrated hard work. I have really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to coming back here in September."

Barring accident or incident Johnson is guaranteed to be part of the 30-strong World Cup squad, which Woodward will announce on 31 August, after which the players will go through a similar set of military-style tests.

While they are getting mentally and physically fit at least the players are having fun, if not a lot of sleep. "When we were granted five hours," said Leonard, "some unfortunates were placed in the same dormitory as Ben Clarke, Austin Healey and Darren Garforth, three of the biggest snorers in the squad. The other boys got two and a half hours sleep."

England's next mission, winning the World Cup, looks a lot tougher. The England toughs are just getting going.