This evening will mark the beginning of the 2015 RBS Six Nations, and what better way to start it than a crunch fixture under the Friday night lights of Cardiff's Millenium Stadium, between Wales
. The last time the English were in the Welsh capital, the home side destroyed any hopes of a Grand Slam, with help from 70,000 fans in red creating an intimidating atmosphere. Stuart Lancaster has said his team will not feel the pressure like they did two years ago, and has gone to extreme lengths to make sure they don't. Loudspeakers were placed next to the Pennyhill Park training pitch in Surrey this week, which were turned to full volume in an attempt to replicate the conditions that will face them on Friday night. Lancaster hopes it will teach his side how to communicate with one another despite the noise. This won't be new to the England squad, as former prop, Phil Vickery, has said it was something he had to deal with in the past as well. This is one of many rituals that rugby teams undergo to make sure they are completely ready for the challenges which face them before every match, and the loudspeakers at Pennyhill Park certainly isn't the strangest we have heard.
Much like Stevie Wonder, the English are all for a bit of of superstition, and have been known in the past to put on fresh kit at half-time, to give them a mentality that they were heading out for the first half again, as then-manager, Sir Clive Woodward, felt they always played better in the first than in the second half. It was only a small ritual that the team had, but it might have been enough to give them that edge, it certainly would seem it did. In Woodward's reign he picked up three Six Nations championships, one Grand Slam, and of course a World Cup in 2003. He also went on to take charge of the British and Irish Lions in 2005, a team who have always tried to find new and creative ways to bond before they tour a respective southern hemisphere country. One that comes to mind especially, would be the winning 1997 Lions side, who had court sessions throughout the tour, in which players would be punished for anything that other members of the squad deemed wrong. Coaches would be seen downing whisky in one, whilst big, burly locks would be dressed in short dresses. The aim of the court sessions were to keep everyone grounded, and everything light. Teams perform when their is a high morale, and it can be seen in the tour DVD, 'Living with the Lions', that this squad had bundles of it, and the chiefs of the team were at the forefront, one being, ex-Ireland skipper, Keith Wood, another man who has been known to have a superstition or two, reportedly one being that he would always leave the changing room last.
Squads nowadays will be tested to the maximum before campaigns to ensure they can adapt to any condition they might have to face. Famously of recent, the Welsh squad have found themselves in the Polish village of Spala, and more specifically, the Olympic Sports Centre, home to a cryotherapy chamber, which is just as bad as it sounds. The Welsh players would get up at 6am to jump in the swimming pool to take part in a session called 'cardiovascular primer', an excercise too physically exhausting to be called a warm-up. A quick bit of breakfast is followed by a sprint-session on the snow-wiped pitch,before they have a 'relaxing' stint in the chamber, at temperatures which dip to -130°. An iced over hell. Wrestling, weights and a final dip in the chamber are the final pieces of the jigsaw after lunch, giving the Welsh coaches a full 12 hours to analyse and judge their players. As horrific as it sounds, it seems to work for the team, who have been fairly successful since the introduction of it, and captain Sam Warburton has said it gives them a mental edge as well as a physical one. The skipper said that teams will feel intimidated when they understand just how prepared Wales would be when facing them.
Another example of a team preparing out of their comfort zone, would be the Scottish rugby
squad of 2003, just weeks away from flying out to Australia to compete for the Webb Ellis World Cup trophy, decided to take their training equipment to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. The Scots hoped that by training at a high intensity in extreme humidity, would help them adapt to the conditions they would face on the other side of the world. A fine example of ingenuity, for players who would not have been used to the temperatures in the gardens, as most of the squad were plying their trade in Britain. The side reached the quarter-finals of the competition, before being knocked-out by the hosts.
Lewis Moody, of England, Leicester Tigers and Bath vintage, had a slightly different superstition. The night before a game, the former back row would head off to a local cinema to catch a film. From whatever he had seen on the silver screen, he would then create a "try-jam" to celebrate any score by the team in the game the following day.
Everyday people in the street all have superstitions, whether it's avoiding stepping on three drains, or going round the outside of a ladder, but most sports athletes have a specific way of preparing for a match, or even just a normal training day. Psychologically, it will help them, and make sure they are relaxed right before kick-off. Will England's training methods help them tonight? Only time will tell.