Spring has barely sprung but, in international rugby, thoughts are already turning to summer. With the season ending for the Welsh regions in April, Warren Gatland has named his provisional squad for the World Cup. He did so on Monday, 132 days before Wales’s first match – Steve Borthwick has spent less time as England head coach – but as the end-of-season run-in looms into view in Europe, so too does the World Cup over its shoulder.
Gatland’s squad announcement can be seen as the start of Wales’s campaign and, if they are first out of the blocks, his European counterparts will all be finessing their final plans. These teams are about to enter the period that head coaches repeatedly remind us is so important because it affords uninterrupted access to players. It is the point in time that Eddie Jones was effectively counting down to before he was sacked as England head coach. As Gatland said: “At times it feels like a club side because of the time you get to have with the players.”
The Wales coach’s players are not due in camp yet and for the first month they won’t even stay overnight, but it is significant that they initially convene on 25 May, before the Premiership final has even taken place. In short, Gatland has the time to knock his players into shape – judging by the Six Nations, where they finished fifth, he needs it – but how effectively he does so is likely to define how Wales navigate a World Cup draw that puts them in the more favourable half, but in a pool alongside Australia and Fiji.
Borthwick, for his part, has less time with which to prepare his squad. All England players are mandated to have five weeks off after their season finishes which means they will join up for the pre-World Cup camp in batches. The first, those whose season finishes this weekend, will be available from mid-June, the losing Premiership semi-finalists a week later and the finalists in early July. Borthwick is helped to a degree by Exeter’s defeat by La Rochelle on Sunday in the sense that Henry Slade and the rest of the Chiefs’ England contingent will now be in that first batch, though any benefit is mitigated because Borthwick would surely have liked to see some of his players exposed to the intensity of a Champions Cup final.
Jones would refer to those early weeks as “head start” camps, as “base camp for Everest”, and there is an obvious emphasis on fitness. Borthwick warned his players after the Six Nations: “We don’t want to spend the World Cup camp trying to get fit, we want to use the World Cup camp to get better.” It was a pointed remark. The post-tournament review found that England were nowhere near fit enough for his liking during the Six Nations and conditioning will still be a key focus early on.
That is where Aled Walters comes in. The Welshman is a highly respected strength and conditioning coach who was on the South Africa staff in 2019. He and Richard Wigglesworth are joining Borthwick’s setup at the end of Leicester’s season and need to hit the ground running. Indeed, England’s task is all the more difficult because the players will also have yet another attack coach to get used to, with Harlequins standing in the way of another secondment for Nick Evans.
Beyond conditioning, there is also a man-management challenge throughout the summer. Players who are ostensibly squad filler – in camp while more established players are completing their mandatory five weeks off – must be made to feel they have a realistic shot at reaching the World Cup squad. It was one of the more telling findings of the leaked post-World Cup review in 2011 that a young Chris Robshaw consistently trained the house down but was overlooked for selection as more senior players held Martin Johnson’s favour. Equally, players who join later must be brought up to speed quickly.
As much as the emphasis will be on conditioning and “getting better”, as Borthwick puts it, there is also a balance to strike. All work and no play and all that. Four years ago Jones introduced dodgeball sessions to the summer camps and took his squad to an RAF base in Cornwall for a night of survival training. The timing was telling, just before he named his provisional squad; so too how players had to relinquish their phones because, make no mistake, they pay attention to the speculation over their potential selection. Equally, too much latitude, too much free time and the devil makes work for idle hands. It is also true that not every idea outside the box is a good one.
Some pay off, however, and Jones has revealed how the players had requested that he name his final squad early, to effectively put them out of their misery – he did so the day after England’s first warm-up match in early August 2019. In hindsight it can be seen as a shrewd move because there was a palpable release of tension among his players. In late July England had been at a warm-weather training camp in Treviso, where Ben Te’o and Mike Brown clashed during a night out. Jones turfed both players out of the squad and one senior player later revealed how significant a turning point that was: both in terms of a wake-up call for players who, coming from so many different clubs, always take a while to gel, and as a way to release the valve on the pressure that had built with thoughts occupied by selection.
As Mako Vunipola said in the week of the World Cup final: “There have been a few moments when we’ve thought: ‘Is this going the right way, or the way that we hoped?’ That’s probably what has pushed us to work harder at this. Create genuine bonds off the field, which isn’t easy to do. And as much as we talk about togetherness, this now feels the most genuine and that’s not something we take lightly.”
Jones was planning to take his players back to Treviso before he was sacked, as well as to Switzerland, but Borthwick changed England’s plans during the Six Nations and afterwards spoke of his intention to do so before the World Cup. Warm-weather training camps over the summer remain in vogue, however. Wales will go to Switzerland and Turkey while Scotland will train at what will be their World Cup camp in Nice. Ireland have a warm-weather camp as well as heading to France towards the end of the summer. France have cancelled their planned trip to Guyana but will have a camp in Monaco. The benefits of acclimatisation are obvious but again there are pitfalls, even beyond the potential for teammates to clash.
In 2019, Ireland went to Portugal and were effectively kept in lockdown. The captain at the time, Rory Best, has since outlined how the squad allowed Joe Schmidt’s notorious methods to become too suffocating before a disappointing campaign. In 2015, England went to Denver but it emerged afterwards that Stuart Lancaster’s headmasterly approach did not go down well with the players who were in need of some release. Understandable perhaps, given England were hosts, but the 2015 campaign also showed the dangers of prioritising sponsors’ commitments too much.
Borthwick will have wrestled with all of this as he finalises England’s summer plans. Dodgeball does not really seem like his thing but, lest we forget, he was Jones’s right-hand man four years ago and will have seen what worked and what did not.
He was, by all accounts, the glue that kept everything together in Jones’s regime, but the challenges of creating cohesion, improving conditioning and forming bonds between his players are all in addition to making the huge strides on the field he and his staff have to make if England are to be competitive. Jones wanted more time this summer but, as has been the case so far in his tenure, Borthwick must work with what he has got.
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