Scrum in the sun in Sardinia
Forte Village Resort has enlisted the great and the good of English rugby to teach its younger guests this summer
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Wednesday 11 April 2012
Will Greenwood looked down from his considerable height at a little chap called Max who, in the middle of a session on kicking the rugby ball, was ambling off the training pitch without permission. "Where are you going?" asked Greenwood, mock-sternly. "I'm going to get a drink," trilled Max, matter-of-factly.
That wasn't how England's rugby union team, featuring Greenwood at inside centre, won the 2003 World Cup, with players meandering away from training drills whenever they felt like it. On the other hand, none of them were six years old and they weren't training in unrelenting Mediterranean sunshine. There were frequent water breaks, but Max reckoned that he couldn't wait until the next one and Max got his way.
This was last summer's inaugural Forte Village Rugby Academy, organised by a company called Super Skills Travel at the Forte Village resort in southern Sardinia. Coaching with Greenwood was his old mate and fellow former England international Austin Healey. The week before, Jason Leonard and Jason Robinson had run the show, which had excited the assembled dads more than if Jason and the Argonauts had shown up. The Forte Village Rugby Academy is almost as much about the onlooking dads as it is about the participating kids. Watching their offspring getting one-on-one coaching from World Cup winners would be thrilling enough, even without the prospect of some top-quality sporting banter late into the night, yet all these former England men seem happy to indulge the fathers off the field, too.
I was there with my 12-year-old, Jake, hooker for his school 1st XV and much better-looking, as Healey observed, than his 2003 World Cup final counterpart, Brian "Pitbull" Moore. Unlike most of the other parents, it was no particular novelty for me to hobnob with famous rugby internationals – I'd had a job for many years as a sports interviewer. What was a novelty, however, was seeing Jake getting intensive training in the art of forward play, not just from Greenwood and Healey who, after all, were backs in their own playing days, but also from a forwards specialist in the near-septuagenarian yet wholly irrepressible form of Greenwood's father Dick, himself a former England captain and coach.
"It's ballet, it's balance, it's beautiful," cried Greenwood Snr, teaching Jake how to scrummage properly, by hollowing his back. "There is a tendency to adopt the dromedary position," he added and demonstrated how to avoid this, putting his two new knees and two new hips through their paces and speculating on what Mrs Greenwood Snr might say if she were watching. A few moments later she was invoked again, when the junior Greenwood explained to Jake that every line-out call should pass "the mum test".
"Would your mum understand the call?" he said. "Would mine? If she wouldn't, it's a bad call." Even the solitary watching mother agreed that this was the acceptable face of sexism.
The Forte Village Rugby Academy is open to children between five and 16, sorted into groups according to age and ability. The idea is that it affords the rest of the family a proper holiday in the swanky surroundings of the Forte Village, with its two huge pools, more restaurants than you can visit in a week and an impressive thassalotherapy spa comprising six outdoor seawater pools, which I'm sure Dick Greenwood put to good, restorative use – while little Willie or Millie, or indeed Jake, or Max, is kept occupied for at least two hours every morning. And gets to take some new ball skills home. The Forte Village is not new to ball skills tuition. It is some years now since a Russian oligarch came ashore from his super-yacht and was so impressed with the place that he ordered his underlings to set up a soccer school.
Handily, that oligarch was Roman Abramovich. By the following summer there was a soccer school carrying the banner of Chelsea FC, run by Chelsea youth-team coaches.
This concept, however, was that of a man called Ed Rusling who, two years ago, happened to be on holiday there with his family, at the same time as Healey and Greenwood were there with theirs. When the two familiar rugby stars stepped onto the stage one evening, in the resort's central piazza and asked if there were any children who fancied throwing a ball around the next day, Rusling sniffed a business opportunity. Super Skills Travel was born practically overnight, with two former England cricket captains, Michael Vaughan and Alec Stewart, later signed up for a leather-on-willow version. This summer, moreover, the most illustrious figure of all in English rugby is adding his titanic presence.
If you were wondering what the future holds for Martin Johnson now that he is no longer the England team manager, part of the answer is that from 14 to 28 July it holds daily training for five-to-16-year-olds under the Sardinian sun.
Big Johnno will bring even more lustre to the academy, but he can't possibly bring a more skilful touch with youngsters. Leonard, Robinson, Greenwood and Healey have 15 – or if you prefer, XV – children between them, and it shows. Certainly, the latter two had a blessedly child-friendly manner, while at the same time – give or take the odd six-year-old insouciantly wandering off to get a drink – not standing for any disruption or indiscipline. "If you think it will improve my day, carry on with your story," said Greenwood to a voluble nine-year-old, who was holding court. The chatter stopped.
More than anything, the two former Leicester, England and Lions teammates made it fun, which of course is more than half the battle. When they introduced a session of ladder work, requiring the children to step as quickly as possible over the rungs of a horizontal ladder, to encourage balance and fleetness of foot, Greenwood and Healey stood at the end holding up fingers which the participants had to count, forcing them to look up as they moved. At first there was a Keystone Kops dimension to this drill, but after a while they could all do it.
Doubtless it helps that the two men themselves met when they were only 16, and a shared sense of unashamedly puerile humour underpins their relationship. When Healey boasted that he used to hide Greenwood's lucky socks when they were on tour together, Greenwood ascribed it to bullying caused by small-man-going-bald syndrome. "The problem with Aus is that he really doesn't know when to stop," he explained, but for Super Skills Travel that's precisely the level of enthusiasm required.
My son Jake had a ball – and learnt how to throw, catch and hook one properly too. So, at a different level, did the tots. "I catched it," cried a little boy one morning, delighted with himself. "It's 'I caught it'," Greenwood corrected him.
"We use proper English when we play rugby. We're not footballers."
The closest airport is Cagliari, served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Stansted.
The Forte Village Resort, Santa Margherita di Pula, Sardinia (00 39 070 9218820; fortevillage.com). A seven-night half-board stay for a family of four costs from £6,493, based on two adults and two under-12s sharing a room.
This year's Rugby Academy dates at the Forte Village Resort are:
2-9 June with Will Greenwood and Austin Healey;
14-28 July with Will Greenwood, Austin Healey and Martin Johnson;18 August-1 September with Jason Leonard and Jason Robinson.
The academy (superskillstravel.com) costs £460 per week and includes a phone call from one of the legends to explain the course, kit, coaching, a signed photo of your child with the players, and a weekly match for adults.
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