I recall with great affection those clandestine Thursday-night trips to Enfield's top after-hours drinking destination. A gang of us would give one another the nod after training, and nothing more needed to be arranged. When my housemates and I walked in, we were inevitably greeted by a good number of other players keen to express themselves through dance. It was naughty, of course it was, but it was also entirely natural behaviour for most of us. It was what we did.
The trick was to keep it quiet when the sensible crowd were around, and this proved both great fun and totally impossible. Inevitably, folk would catch the drift of the morning-after-the-night-before tales at the training ground, and some even craved inclusion, living vicariously through a pack of lustful, indefatigable young guns. We were the boys, and we knew it.
It was only when Richard Hill, a grumpy old man who has received far too many inches in this column of late, asked me: "When are you going to grow up and stop pissing away your potential?" that I realised a vital part of what this game is about. It is about balance, and we were tilting too far the wrong way.
Hilly's professionalism was unattainable for pretty much any other player on the planet but still, I instantly knew he had a point. I felt ashamed, and I changed. Sadly, almost as soon as my new regime began to bear fruit in 2002, my body broke – and it kept breaking. But I still regard the renewed sense of balance instilled in me by one so revered as the reason I came back from many injuries.
The required balance has changed since, of course. The game is harder than ever and there is truly no place to hide, either in terms of ambition or physical prowess. Callipers are wielded to keep the kitchen-pickers in order and GPS units are strapped to players as they train, just in case some old boy fancies a breather. Accountability is everything, so presumably ale is simply no longer on the menu. So why were Saracens all whisked off to get stuck into a German beer festival straight after their huge win at Quins last weekend?
While athletes across the country were reporting for debriefs and gym sessions, the Sarries lads were piling into Oktoberfest en masse. My stance on this sanctioned team activity might come as no surprise: I love it. There will, naturally, be plenty who disagree and that is fine, but rugby players, like all men, need opportunities to let off steam, and that those men happen to be paid to play sport changes that not one jot.
Saracens are renowned for promoting an innovative culture which allows players to be themselves, whatever their social inclinations. In this environment the calorie-counting pros mix in comfort with the party boys, the modern-day analysis addicts are happy to embrace the dinosaurs, and together they became a unit strong enough to beat the reigning champions on their own patch.
Of course, their success is not solely due to the cosmopolitan, inclusive nature of their squad. No, they are expertly coached, ruthlessly drilled and, when they do come together to work, they work extremely hard.
Last season they popped over to Miami between games, and why not? I used to sometimes pop to Bristol on my day off if I was feeling energetic – same thing. For me, this is not necessarily about the booze or the calories or the carbs, it is more to do with the promise of the event. Every time players are told about their next social extravaganza, they are having a great big, juicy carrot dangled at their noses. They are being told that soon they will experience something wonderful and this, as we all have felt in the weeks leading up to a summer holiday, sets excitement running wild around the bloodstream.
A less comfortable, less trusting approach might be to only offer these experiences if the team win. Understandable as this may seem, the Sarries way is to say we trust you, we believe in you, we know that as a proud group of blokes you will not want to be pampered if you have underperformed. You will want to arrive at Oktoberfest as winners.
So is this all a bit silly, a bit football? No, it's total genius. And it's all about balance.
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