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.”

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US