England get up to speed with McLaren's help
England are far from the fastest team in world rugby and the line-up for Monday's official kit launch – the Northampton strike runners Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, the long-retired half-back Kyran Bracken and four mannequins – was just about the quickest red-rose back division in recent memory. Yet things will surely improve if an intriguing high-tech link with the McLaren Formula One team bears fruit ahead of next month's global tournament in New Zealand.
John Hall, the former international flanker who has been in charge of the team's heavily computerised performance analysis programme for several years, is working closely with the vroom-vroom merchants, who happen to be based in Woking, no more than seven miles – roughly a two-minute drive at Lewis Hamilton speed – from the squad's World Cup camp near Bagshot. "It's very much an embryonic thing," said Mike Ford, the England defence coach. "They're looking at the way we do our analysis and we're looking at their systems, just to see if we can feed off each other."
This harks back to England's year of years in 2003, when the manager of that outstanding World Cup-winning side, Clive Woodward, used every scientific development then known to sporting man in a successful effort to secure advantages over the opposition. Woodward cast his net far and wide: he brought in an Israeli aviation enthusiast and handwriting expert who had developed a computer program that assessed an individual's capacity to operate under heavy stress, together with a visual awareness specialist, who made a significant contribution as an "eye coach" despite, it is alleged, failing to spot the ball that struck her on the head during a training session.
One man who clearly remembers Woodward's mantra about "doing a hundred things one per cent better than everyone else" is Mike Tindall, one of the key performers in the '03 final and a stone-cold certainty to make the trip to All Black country for next month's tournament. "The greatest thing Clive did was to ensure we were ahead of other people," he said yesterday. "That's very hard to repeat: teams have caught up and are working at the same level, so you're really looking for an edge of half a per cent now.
"But the conditioning guys, the analysis people getting involved with McLaren...everyone is trying to find that little bit extra in terms of data and feedback. They're looking at all the data we pull up from the Global Positioning System and the heart-rate monitors we use, trying to work out when players are most at risk of injury and making sure we operate at the optimum level without going over the edge. We're giving McLaren loads of numbers about what we're doing during training and if we can find a statistical model that helps prevent injury, maybe that's a half per cent we can steal."
Tindall, who led England in the absence of Lewis Moody last season, is currently England's senior outside centre and intends to stay that way, despite the enthusiastic challenges of the Bath back Matt Banahan and the uncapped Leicester youngster Manu Tuilagi. He seems entirely unfazed by the continuing fuss surrounding his marriage to Zara Phillips last weekend and insists he is wholly at ease with his mother-in-law's conflicting rugby loyalties. Reminded that the Princess Royal is patron of the Scottish Rugby Union, he said: "She'll be supporting us apart from when we play the Scots in our last pool game, but I'll forgive her that."
Had he not been distracted at all by recent events? "Hundreds of boys get married and then come into work after the weekend," replied Tindall, who left camp last Thursday and was back in it by Monday lunchtime. "I know there was a little bit more going on around our wedding, but it was everything we wanted it to be and all the distractions were external. I've always had the ability to focus on what I'm doing at a particular time. That was training up until the point I left, and it's training now."
While the Rugby Football Union was having another of its "interesting" days – within minutes of the governing body declaring this weekend's England-Wales warm-up game at Twickenham an 82,000 sell-out, the sports minister Hugh Robertson could be heard urging it to act quickly to address the internal squabbling that has seen a number of high-profile departures and left it without a permanent chairman or chief executive – the Scots, who play England in Auckland at the start of October, were making their first moves ahead of the meeting with Ireland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Ross Rennie, the 25-year-old Edinburgh forward, will feature on the open-side flank – his first international appearance in the role – while Graeme Morrison returns to midfield after missing the Six Nations through injury.
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