Top players must be hungry for homework
With thunder and flair at every turn it would appear pretty clear to even the most casual observer as to what it takes to win a Six Nations clash.
There can be little doubt that power, pace, precision and determination are key ingredients for success but the dazzling displays served up in the Championship often over shadow the equally pivotal work that goes on well away from TV cameras and the focus of thousands of fans.
The training pitch will play host to hours of drills that it is hoped will lay the foundation for victory and the gym will witness the countless repetitions designed to provide the strength and stamina that will be required to perform from first whistle to last.
But preparing the body for the physical demands of the elite game is just part of the challenge for the northern hemisphere’s finest with the mental preparation arguably just as pivotal in not only securing a victory but also prolonging a career at the top.
Scotland captain John Barclay recently offered a detailed behind-the-scenes view of what is expected of a leading international when it comes to homework.
His insight, which may prove enlightening for fans hooked initially by the brutality of the game, offers players at every level of the game an indication of the dedication required to not only reach the pinnacle of the game, but stay there.
Barclay’s comments also highlight the incredible amount of work that is done by the coaching team to prepare their players for what they hope is every possible scenario.
“(Scotland head coach) Gregor (Townsend) is really innovative in that each week we have a new playbook,” Barclay told BBC Sport. “Perhaps in years gone by we might have brought in one new move a week, but pretty much every week now we could have up to 10 new moves…Gregor and the coaching team would have spent days, weeks, months planning these attacks, analysing what might work.”
Each new play is multi-layered and accounts for a different outcome at each given turn and as a result many options may never be used.
“The new moves can be two or three-phase moves and each of them have a line-out attached as well," he continued. “There’s all sorts of cancels and checkout options if things change.”
It is worth remembering that this is of course all in addition to the structures within which these same players work at club or regional level.
While the physical elements of their preparation may transfer relatively easily from one team to the other, a different coach may well mean an alternative philosophy – and a completely different playbook.
Townsend and some of his players no doubt benefit from the fact that many of them worked together at Glasgow Warriors and that relationship must allow for a shorthand of sorts when it comes to communication and understanding.
There are also no excuses for not being up-to-speed come matchday with players expected to use every opportunity to cement their learning.
“We have apps on our phones and iPads with all of this stuff on it,” added Barclay. “All teams would have that these days. We have clips of the moves from training with the coaches speaking over them. Gone are the days of sitting in the back of meetings praying you won’t get asked a question, and to a man, the guys have bought into this culture – learn, study and analyse early in the week and perform on a Saturday.”
Barclay, who steered his side to an impressive victory over England in Edinburgh last month, also revealed that the intense mental preparation is devised to ensure they can play instinctively during the actual game.
That desire to eliminate any potentially damaging indecision is particularly important when Townsend insists his side play at high tempo.
“Training is designed to put you under the same sort of pressure, physically and mentally, as a Test match,” said Barclay. “Putting the players under stress is part and parcel of a training week now, and it ensures that come Saturday you know your role inside out and you are allowing yourself the freedom to play off instinct, without thinking.”
There are also no corners worth cutting if you wish to remain part of the set-up. Everyone must be on the same page and tuning out in the team room may not only cost you a fine but your international career.
“The expectations are different now. You just have to learn it, no option. You don’t learn it, somebody else will play. If you don’t learn it or can’t learn it, they can’t pick you. We train for a couple of hours a day and there’s an expectation on you as a professional to turn up for work knowing your stuff.”
It is clear that a player’s physical ability to deliver top class rugby on the field is only one factor in their selection, albeit an important one, and that their mental capacity and hunger for homework will also define the extent of their international career.