Six Nations Championship: ‘Mr Marginal Gains’ gears up England’s game

 

Rugby Union Correspondent

There are plenty of people out there who look at the way the All Blacks are playing – not to mention the way the Springboks have added a sprinkling of panache to their power game – and reach the conclusion that England cannot possibly win their home World Cup next year without a miracle.

Maybe two miracles. Matt Parker does not believe in the paranormal. British sport’s high priest of “marginal gains” deals in evidence-based reality rather than mystery and in his opinion there has been enough measurable improvement in the red-rose squad over the last year or so to suggest that a recapturing of the Webb Ellis Trophy is possible.

It is exactly a year since Parker joined the rugger-buggers at Twickenham from Dave Brailsford’s stunningly successful Olympic cycling set-up and his ideas are beginning to take shape, in a number of contrasting ways. As head of a 16-man high-performance team boasting experts in a range of disciplines, from medicine and psychology to nutrition and analysis, he has formulated a detailed build-up plan running all the way through to the start of the global tournament in a little under 20 months’ time. He is also a key figure in the construction of a swanky new “centre for athletic development” in the grounds of the England country hotel team base outside Bagshot. The cost? Parker is vague, but we are talking a substantial seven-figure sum.

The 38-year-old physiology graduate from Staffordshire rarely puts his head above the parapet and when he does, he prefers to keep his brightest ideas to himself. “People ask me what I do,” he says with a soft smile. “What I don’t do is look for magic formulas, because there aren’t any. It’s not often that anyone working in this field finds one thing capable of giving you that 10-15 per cent improvement in performance. Dick Fosbury did it in the high jump back in ’68; McLaren did it in motor racing. But it’s very rare. And if you just search for the big leap forward, the silver bullet, it’s easy to miss the important day-to-day detail.

“So it’s not a case of me taking a formula from cycling and applying it to rugby. For one thing, there are more variables in this game; for another, what I found when I arrived was further advanced that I’d expected. There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work in rugby. What we have here is the challenge of delivering a big piece of work under pressure of time – when we get to next September, there’ll be no asking for one more day of preparation – so it’s my job to innovate responsibly in order to maximise the talent, hard work and commitment of the players. Basically, we want them running out there at the World Cup confident in their ability to deliver.”

Interestingly, Parker sees obvious similarities between Stuart Lancaster, his new boss, and Brailsford, his old one. “They’re both very strong leaders,” he says. “Stuart has a very clear sense of direction: he knows what he wants and when I look at what he has instilled in this England group, it feels to me like a high-performance culture.

“I have no rugby background – my sporting interest initially was track and field, with a bit of football thrown in – but equally, I came into this group with no preconceptions. It was a challenge I felt I couldn’t turn down because you don’t get many opportunities to be involved in something as big as a home World Cup, and I’m glad I’ve taken it on. There’s a great sense of family among the people here, some deep bonds.”

Not every World Cup team will have a Parker-style high performance unit behind them: the Pacific Islands sides will be lucky if their kit turns up at the right ground on match day. But England’s operation has its flip side in the form of heightened expectation, and the  back-room staff know it. Happily, Parker is entirely comfortable with the level of scrutiny. “The pursuit of high performance is relentless,” he says, “and if we want to be smarter and faster than the opposition, we’ll have to work for it. That’s why I’m here.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Two christmas trees ,Moonbeam (2L), Moonchester (2R) and Santa Claus outside the Etihad Stadium
footballAll the action from today's games
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas