A WEEK IS A LONG TIME……. IN RUGBY

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I think that last week can best be described as “one of those weeks” at the rugby club.

I am sure that as coaches, administrators and players we have all had bad weeks, I know I have. Last week, however, was without doubt one of the most challenging I have experienced in my 40 years of involvement in rugby.

Two weeks ago we had a good win at home on a very snowy, partly icy pitch and, despite the conditions, all seemed rosy in the garden. Then the wheels came off.

Perhaps a little background first.

We are a relatively new club in Central Italy ( ASD Moscosi 2008 Rugby – founded in 2008) and I became involved just as the season was beginning last year (2011/12) having moved from another, more established club, in order to take up the challenge. The club has made massive strides forward in that time, the most significant of which, probably, has been in changing the culture and attitude towards training. Last season a good training session (as far as numbers are concerned) was anything over 10 people – there were not many ‘good’ nights. This year (with a group of only 26 players) we have very rarely, if ever, trained with less than 15.

Given that, and, somewhat embarrassingly on the very night that the Italian Rugby Federation Technical Representative came to the club for the first time since 2008, last Tuesday only 8 people turned up –  two of which were not fit to train. We do have a system in place that requires players to inform me if they are not going to be at training, and why not, but even that system seemed to fail. Result? I was caught with my pants down in front of  the Federation – not a pretty sight. Thank goodness the club has invested in a great Gym that we were able to show off to the Rep!

Thursday came and the weather had continued to be awful – more snow, more ice and more rain, resulting in the pitch not being fit to play on. The club had not been able to find a suitable indoor venue for us to train in, or, let’s be honest, an indoor venue of any sort. Back to the gym then.

So, hardly the best preparation to take on the team in second position in the league in their own back yard!

As with many clubs, Thursday night, after training ends, myself, the assistant coach and the team captain sit down to select the team for Sundays match. The first thing to note was that the captain was not there so the vice captain was invited to join us. When we started going through the list of those available to play we very quickly realized that we only had 16 players available and that we did not have players for each position. We thought it sensible to  defer the selection (if you can call it that – shoehorning players into unfamiliar positions is probably a more accurate description) until Saturday, in the hope that some players who were not available due to illness might recover in time.

By Saturday afternoon we were down to 14 players, a further two having dropped out with some variety of the lurgy – including the Vice Captain.

The decision was made to meet up at the club at the planned time anyway and then decide what to do. Clearly with 14 players we would have to forfeit the match, have a points deduction and pay a fine of €500. Not ideal.

A miracle. Two players who had been listed as not available turned up giving us 16 (one admittedly, turned up 20 minutes after we were due to leave, doing a handbrake turn to a stop on the main road as we drove in the other direction!). It was a good job that the journey to the other club would take about 90 minutes as we had to perform a conjuring trick of Dynamo proportions in order to make the team selection.

Yes we had 16 players, but what I failed to tell you is that the one player on the bench has knackered knees and was only coming along to help with numbers. The other problem was that we only had 5 players who had ever played in the scrum and one player who had not played for a year having just come back after rehab following an operation on his lateral cruciate ligament.

So the team comprised:- two props who normally play second row, one second row who normally plays flanker and another who normally plays wing (a robust young man though), two of the back row who normally play in the backs, a scrum half who is normally a hooker, the fly half was the returning player and the full back a winger who had never played in that position before. But we had a team.

I am not prone to delusion and nor are the players. We all knew that the game was going to a tough one and that realistically we were going to be outplayed in most phases and areas of the game. Our pre match talk was honest, frank and open. I told the players what to expect and that I wanted to see team unity, a high degree of support for the players playing out of position and that they were never to let their heads go down.

We were, as I had feared, completely blown away by the other team and at the end of the first half we were 59-0 down and reduced to 13 players.

So is this a negative article about how poor we were and how I am dissatisfied with the preparation for the match and how the game went? No, not at all.

Yes, of course I was less than happy with what had happened in the lead up to the match, but I was hugely impressed by what unfolded both on and off the pitch yesterday.

Firstly, the opposition team and their coach were very understanding of the situation and at no point did they rub salt into our wounds. At half time the match was technically over (less than 15 players from our team on the pitch), but the opposition asked us what we wanted to do and when my team said they wanted to carry on playing (albeit as a friendly) they gave us two players – and two good players, to enable this to happen.

My team never, ever, gave up. They fought to the very end and the second half was less one sided than the first (ok, you can say that the opposition had nothing to play for, their rugby and tackling would suggest otherwise). They showed a solidarity that I had never seen up until that point. The stand in Captain and Vice captain were magnificent in their leadership. All those that played out of position stepped up (the second row who up until then had been a winger was our Man of the Match) and, at the end of the match both teams – and us coaches- got together  in the middle of the pitch to salute this magnificent game of ours. I should also say that the referee also played his part in ensuring that the game could be completed. Then came the icing on the cake for me as a coach. My team (including the walking wounded) all went up to the crowd – that was entirely made up of supporters of the opposition – and gave them three cheers. As a consequence, my team walked off the pitch to a standing ovation.

To be beaten by just under 100 points and to display such maturity and respect for the opposition and their supporters made me a very, very, proud coach.

Following this we all got together outside the changing rooms and the players present did two things that surprised and impressed me. Firstly, they acknowledged something that I have been saying for almost two years – namely that so much about the way that they play is a state of mind and that they are actually capable of performing better, even under the most  difficult of situations and, secondly, that the only way that the mental element of their performance is going to improve is by ensuring that the entire squad makes a bigger effort to ensure every training session counts, is well attended and that the players that are going to have to work together on the pitch at the weekend must train well together during the week.

Both issues might be blindingly obvious and as coaches we have been reinforcing this message for a long time. What was so good about yesterday was that it came from the players themselves.

International players and coaches often talk about learning more through defeat than victory. This is clearly true and yesterday, I believe, will prove to be a milestone in the development of this team.

Tomorrow evening we have a team meeting where those that were present yesterday will discuss with those who were not, what they feel and how, as a group of players, they need to take a greater responsibility for their development as players and for the team in general.

Music to the ears of any coach I am sure.

For more information on Moscosi Rugby visit our website (admittedly in Italian) at http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/asdmoscosi2008/ or you can follow us on Twitter @moscosirugby (again mainly in Italian but am happy to do it in English as well)

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