Peter Bills: Keeping your nerve is the key to success

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The Independent Online

It is very often the hardest thing of all to do in top class sport. Keep your nerve.

Whether you are a motor racing driver, jockey, batsman, rugby player or athlete, keeping control of your senses invariably proves to be the difference between success and failure. And that’s just the competitors. The poor, unfortunate coaches of this sporting world are condemned to a nail-biting existence on the sidelines, doubtless kicking or hitting every ball but in reality largely helpless as to the immediate direction of the play.

Very often, the fate of coaches and their livelihoods depends on the strength of will of those above them. This week, at Paris-based French rugby club Stade Francais, Australian coach Ewen McKenzie was given the bullet after just five matches of the new season. Now, no-one is saying Stade Francais owner Max Guazzini doesn’t have strength of will. Plainly, he does. And there may have been other factors at play here, especially McKenzie’s inability to converse fluently in the language of his native players. But then, Guazzini knew that when he hired the former Waratahs coach at the start of last season.

The point is that expectations need to be managed. And nowhere is there a better example of that than in England with the national team.

Frankly, since England won the World Cup in 2003, most of what has followed has been a wasteland for English rugby at international level. A golden era ended and, it seemed, few strategies and plans had been put in place to ensure continuity, some sort of natural progress with a new generation. England lurched from the winning enclosure to the loser’s lonely berth like drunks after a wild night out. Remember, England’s cricketers did much the same after the ludicrously over the top celebrations of their Ashes series win over the Australians in 2005. Remember the follow-up series in Australia and the 5-0 Test whitewash ?

England’s many rugby fans need to remember such lessons, as the build-up quickens to the autumn internationals, which begin for them on 7 November against Australia at Twickenham. Further games against Argentina and New Zealand will follow, with significant challenges to be expected from all three nations.

I am not suggesting that the England management of Martin Johnson, Brian Smith et al are in any sense imperilled should things go awry this autumn. Thankfully, those in senior positions among the RFU hierarchy are realistic enough to know that a thorough re-building task is under way here and that will require above all else, time.

But England’s supporters, that exceedingly demanding set of folk, must demonstrate similar patience. If every result does not go England’s way, as it won’t, there is no point in starting to erect scaffolds. For England’s future is inevitably going to surround a new group of younger players. The likes of London Wasps flanker Tom Rees, Bath tight head prop David Wilson, Leicester Tigers lock Richard Blaze, Northampton Saints quartet Ben Foden, Stephen Myler, Shane Geraghty and Dylan Hartley plus, when he is fit again, London Irish’s Delon Armitage could all have important roles to play.

Add to that list others likely to represent England again this winter, if fit, such as Jonny Wilkinson, Ugo Monye, Paul Sackey and, when recovered, Riki Flutey, and you peruse a nucleus of talented players. But then comes the hard part, grafting all that natural ability into a pattern, a cohesive unit that can function successfully together.

That cannot happen overnight. England may well suffer further losses and indignities during the 6 Nations Championship in the New Year. That, in my view, does not greatly matter, either. What all the preparation currently now underway must be geared towards is the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It is perfectly possible that not even two years will be long enough to weld all this disparate ability together into a proper side.

Take the example of South Africa if you do not believe me. They are at their peak now, already World Cup holders, now Tri-Nations Champions, IRB Sevens champions and, with the Blue Bulls, Super 14 Champions.

But until last weekend when they clinched their first Tri-Nations title since 2004, South Africa had still to claim the crown of southern hemisphere champions. And most of the side that has succeeded this season first came together under new coach Jake White back in 2004. In other words, it has needed five long, hard years for the Springboks to build a winning side and achieve their destiny.

The point should be as clear as spring water. This season is only the second England’s new regime has been in harness. Already, they are making significant progress, most notably by scoring tries at a healthy ratio. But don’t expect miracles; prepare, instead, for more ups and downs, some notable victories laced with disappointing defeats.

The latter is as much a part of the learning process as the sweetest of victories. But above all, it requires everyone to keep their nerve.