The Calvin Report: England's new formula adds up to an impressive result
By espousing the datasheet and performance analysis that powered Britain's Olympic sports to greatness, coach Stuart Lancaster can introduce debutants like Billy Twelvetrees with confidence
Sunday 03 February 2013
New heroes were created and fresh legends were crafted before a watercolour sunset subsided into darkness at Twickenham last evening. A warrior named Billy Twelvetrees is enough to make marketing men salivate, and an England team of rich potential has the capacity to captivate.
A flock of birds wheeled above the stadium, as dreams of a new World Cup challenge took flight. Memories of New Zealand, and the paucity of Stuart Lancaster's inheritance as head coach, belong to another era.
Twelvetrees, the Gloucester inside centre, had a stellar, try-scoring debut. Owen Farrell flirted with perfection. Emerging players like Joe Launchbury and Tom Youngs restated their progress. Scotland will be thoroughly sick of reminders of 30 years of hurt at HQ.
Yet, when a low-key lap of honour had been completed – it resembled a desultory stroll, if truth be told – there was much work to be done. Ireland, in Dublin next Sunday, will provide a more definitive test. Lancaster urged Twelvetrees to relish the moment, but is not a man to dwell on victory, however satisfying. "Obviously a debut is big step for any player, particularly at Twickenham," Lancaster said. "The try was great for Billy, but the confidence and composure he had shown throughout the week showed it was right for him to make the step up."
International is rugby is changing. Myths and supposed certainties have been exposed. Expecting the Scots to be stirred solely by the ghosts of King Edward's army is as futile as presuming the Welsh can be inspired only by hwyl, hymns and arias.
Cultural stereotypes are being challenged: France, marginal Six Nations favourites, are almost a throwback to old school England teams, who relied on a monster pack and forward-oriented game. The fans may still colonise Twickenham's watering holes, and celebrate such contests as rites of passage, but the game has moved on without them.
History and geography have their place, of course. England remain the Big Daddies, purely on Census numbers. They luxuriate in a talent pool of oceanic proportions compared to the rest. But the traditional attraction of the tournament, the perception of oppression and entitlement, is part of a more sophisticated process.
Those living in a Tartan Tardis, convinced by the propaganda value of England's supposed arrogance and condescension, have their clocks set to the late 20th Century. Lancaster's team are not a bunch of City traders waving their wads, or braying aristocrats exploiting the masses. They are the future made flesh. Athletes of their calibre and range of ambition divest themselves of emotion. They are in a game of marginal gains. The principle of aggregated improvement, which underpinned our Olympic advances, is being implanted by Lancaster and his lieutenants. The recruitment of Matt Parker, from British Cycling, is the precursor of real culture change.
World Cup victory in 2003 marked the end of an era rather than a new dawn. England's initial aim is their first Grand Slam for 10 years, yet everything must be judged in the context of the World Cup in 2015.
The RFU, to their credit, see the bigger picture. Most governing bodies slyly kick strategic reviews into the long grass once their PR teams and political lobbyists give the impression of urgency. The infrastructure of the English game at the highest level has been refreshed. Lancaster, an earnest but unknown company man a year ago, now has overarching control. His team has clear values and long-overdue performance principles. There is much to gain by the appliance of science. This is where Parker comes in.
Preparation involves the team becoming increasingly compartmentalised in training, which has acquired greater intensity to reproduce game situations. A more confrontational approach in practice is designed to stimulate natural production. Performance analysis, through GPS tracking and match "analytics", is becoming more sophisticated. Each player has his key-performance indicator. This is a technically literate generation, which uses the iPad as a device for self-improvement. Rugby is a more natural numbers game than football, where massive amounts are being spent in developing mathematical models. Courage, of course, cannot be computed. The nerve to accept personal responsibility in a match of such importance cannot be overstated. Human factors will forever be at play. Few things in sport match the test of moral fibre presented by a rugby international.
Significant technological advances remain in-house, but lateral thinking is encouraged. Visual awareness programmes, involving the sort of 3D glasses which have proved useful in rowing, are designed to improve decision making under pressure.
The weakness, perversely, is the physical strength of the modern player. The hits are becoming bigger and the sight of warriors such as Ben Morgan, England's No8, being helped off will become more common. Lest we forget, this was a side stripped of two of the more prominent figures in the autumn win over New Zealand, Alex Corbisiero and Manu Tuilagi.
The impressive debut of Twelvetrees emphasises the significance of succession planning. He has been nurtured carefully. When the opportunity arose to underline his potential as a resilient defender and a busy attacker, he took it.
The most obvious danger is of England getting ahead of themselves. Expectation literally comes with the territory. But, when the last pint had been sunk, the real work was beginning. The whiteboard and the datasheet are omnipresent.
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