The sport headlines declared that a club team representing Wales had won a famous Rugby Union victory against an England team that had been world champions, and more recently runners-up, in the last two world championships. What happened? How did it come about? And are there any lessons to be learned about leadership, team spirit, and that mysterious sporting phenomenon of momentum?
Saturday February 2nd 2008.
The Six Nations Rugby tournament kicked off with England home against Wales. Even in Wales, the faithful prepared themselves for the worse. The days when Wales had been a major international force at Rugby were retreating into mythology. In the intervening period (to make things worse) England rugby had advanced until even the most grudging Welsh supporter acknowledged a gulf in quality and strength in depth. Wales had not won at Twickenham for two decades.
A few months ago, Wales and England both began the Rugby World Cup. Wales were eliminated in the first stage. And England improved and improved. Wales retreated to lick their wounds, and to ditch the hapless coaching team. They also had in mind appointing much-rated coach Warren Gatland from New Zealand.
So hasty were they to make a fresh start, that the Welsh Rugby Union accepted that their preferred candidate would be unable to start work with the team until the 2008 competitive season was nearly underway.
Gatland wanted to bring with him an English defensive coach. Unheard of. But his pick was Shaun Edwards another top class coach who had shared success with Gatland in the past. Ironically, Edwards would have liked a post within the England set-up, but had not been able to agree terms.
Making the best of a bad job
So the likely lads arrived in town too late to make a difference to a dispirited Welsh squad. Then, an ingenious and daring selection decision. Gatland had no time to weigh up strengths and weaknesses of every player in every club throughout the land. But one Welsh premier team, the Ospreys, had been performing well (albeit hardly spectacularly) at international and regional levels.
The Welsh squad was announced, and the astonishing news was that there would be 13 of the starting 15 players from that one club team. The shock can be seen against the fact that the previous record was for 10 players (from the once dominant Cardiff club, some sixty years earlier). England, with more clubs to draw from, had managed seven players on a few occasions.
‘Don’t expect miracles’
Whatever Gatland told the players, he went out of his way to warn the Welsh Nation not to expect miracles. Good move, although unsurprising.
What happened next?
By general agreement, the game began as everyone expected. The mighty English outscored and overpowered the less muscular Welsh team. At half-time, Wales were clearly hanging on, close to collapse into humiliation. The 16-6 score concealed several opportunities lost by England to add to their score.
Then a miracle?
Maybe. What was observed was a rather sudden shift from England ‘almost’ administering a knock-out, to a team showing signs of poor tactical decisions, poor execution, and an evident drop in energy. Major figures had been injured in the frenzied first half, but the replacements seemed more than adequate to continue the demolition.
Wales cut out the elementary errors that had compounded their problems in the first half.
England continued to rely on power, when they were running on empty. And ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got’. But power had stopped working. And there didn’t seem to be a plan B.
Wales scrabbled back some of the lead to 19-12. A nice move by Hook from half-back created a try to draw the score. More flustered play, by (of all people Jonny Wilkinson) and a second try in short order.
It’s all over
Commentators were now saying that England had lost all momentum. That mysterious force. They were doomed. I was not particularly convinced. But so it came about. The out-muscled Welsh forwards proceeded to out-muscle the former bullies.
Miracles and momentum
Let’s get the sporting clichés out of the way first. The Welsh/Ospreys team went in at half-time like little boys lost, and came out roaring and spitting. What a great team-talk that must have been by Gatland and Edwards. Except, we don’t know. When interviewed, the Welsh players either couldn’t remember, or were not saying. It’s a team effort, they repeated, as if brainwashed. It’s all the players and all the coaching squad together.
But the players on the field ‘just knew’ that England were wilting, just like the commentators knew.
And the adoring Welsh fans are well on the way to hailing an unusual pair of incomers as Great Redeemers to guide them with a powerful hand.
It left England’s coach Brian Ashton bemused. We need some time to reflect on it, he said.
And so do I.
After the match Gatland gave a revealing interview to the BBC. He again attempted to lower expectations, and talked of the decision to select so many players from one club.
“I know from experience with club sides it is going to take 12 months, two years to turn this side into a good side… Saturday was a starting point but to be a good side we have got a hell of a lot of improving to do ..so don’t expect miracles in a few weeks.
I am not saying that is going to be the case for next week, but I could have easily have taken a bit of pressure off myself by picking two or three others [non Ospreys]. But I believed that was the right decision for that game……The hard decision was picking as many as we did, and having the composure to do it knowing that people would comment on it.”