David Flatman: Performance is required, not a generation of gym junkies
Your hunger and passion will only see you through the opening exchanges
Sunday 15 April 2012
As soon as rugby union turned professional, money seemed to get the blame for everything. It was, and is, said that the camaraderie has disappeared from the game, as its proponents are now just mercenaries. Whenever a team underperforms and the paying supporters begin to verbalise their discontent, there is always one voice near the back labelling the day's runners-up a pack of overpaid apes.
And so the euro is now being blamed for our English sides being brutally tossed aside by their French counterparts in the Heineken Cup. This issue is raised around this time every season and, to my mind, those with this opinion have a point.
More money buys more players, which means injuries and fatigue matter less as one top-class practitioner will be replaced by another. Any holes left by absent internationals during Test periods are dealt with in the same manner.
However, I think to dismiss any French victory over the English as a predictable triumph of cash over poverty is naive. Let us take Clermont Auvergne as an example. Yes, their wage bill is more like Liverpool's than Leicester's and they could probably field two international teams from their first-team squad alone.
But the fact is that they do not. They don't rest players frequently in the Top 14, setting their sights solely on Europe – a luxury afforded to this year's most successful nation so far, Ireland.
No, these Clermont boys play every week in the world's most brutal league. Admittedly, the Top 14 is not all sparkles and champagne, but its savageness and monstrous physicality can never be questioned.
I find it odd that the cash splashed in France makes people so angry but that the absence of relegation in the Pro12 – a policy which makes resting players a risk-free exercise – is rarely argued. As it happens I like the Irish system, mainly because, whatever they are doing over there, they are producing stunning players and stunning teams.
Like so many dominant rugby teams, the Clermont line-up could – give or take the odd individual – be named weeks in advance. When Leicester ruled English rugby, and Wasps after them, the team did not need announcing every week. We knew who would play and this, I think, has a lot to do with the French (and Irish) success too.
Partnerships are formed and given time to develop, and the results seem to speak for themselves. In England many clubs employ variations on a rotation system. It often works brilliantly as it keeps players fit and happy. The assumption is that a player given a fortnight off will come back hungrier than ever, and I expect this is invariably the case.
But hunger and passion will only see you through a game's opening exchanges. After that it is more to do with the instinctiveness with which a player fits into a team system or pattern, and it is about honed techniques becoming natural behaviours. No matter how hard you train, matches are where practice is done best.
This tendency to select the same group every week would, in some quarters, be seen as poor player welfare. We know that, despite what one might expect, players' strength in the gym deteriorates over the course of a season. This has much to do with fatigue and the inevitable picking up of knocks. But does it really matter? I look at the Biarritz front five and think two things: firstly they are all, in honesty, a bit chubby; secondly they are very, very good at their jobs.
Toulouse's colossal Samoan Census Johnston would bea fat-calliper-wielding nutritionist's worst nightmare, but he is also the top tighthead at Europe's biggest club.
There are English examples, too: Nick Easter just does not look as fit and muscular as, say, James Haskell but he remains a quite brilliant No 8. He is, like the big lumps from across the water, fit for purpose.
This apparent focus on repeated rugby performance over strength and conditioning seems to work nicely. Of course, any modern professional must be hugely strong and fit, but the French just seem to be less concerned with the physical detail.
Yes, their players are very well paid but they are also battle-hardened and battle-wise. They are rugby players. Not over-earning ingrates, not nicely rested, over-valued assets wrapped in cotton wool, and not gym junkies. They are just very, very good. And for this they deserve some credit.
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