If you asked most retired sportsmen to pinpoint a moment in their career which stands out in their mind, you might expect to hear about their first international cap, a glorious cup win, or a flash of personal brilliance. But for Jeremy Snape, a man who has won no less than nine domestic trophies over a career spanning 16 years, it was one innocuous sweep shot back in 2002 that he looks back on as his defining moment.
It was Snape’s first overseas tour with England, and helped by a Marcus Trescothick century, the tourists were cruising to victory when Snape joined Andrew Flintoff at the crease. Coming back for a second run, Snape gave a late call of “no” to his partner, leaving England’s talisman short of his ground. Just a few balls later, his mind, scrambled, Snape tried to swipe at a full ball from Harbajan Singh and was out lbw.
“I failed in front of 120,000 people in India while batting for England. I chose that moment to play the highest risk shot ever and got out, it was only the pressure getting to me but at the time I didn’t know why I did it.
“Through this, and playing other professional and international cricket I found that the mindset was a key driver of success but there wasn’t such a strong coaching emphasis placed on it. I was keen to understand it and be able to simplify the theory to help people become more successful. This fueled my interest to go on and study for my MSc.”
By his own admission, Snape never had the most glittering career at international level and it seems that only since retirement has he truly flourished within the game.
In 2005, whilst still playing cricket for Leicestershire Foxes, he founded the consultancy Sporting Edge. Since then, Snape’s gaining prominence as a sports psychologist has been helped by well-placed connections. One wouldn’t necessarily expect local contacts to come to the former off-spinner’s aid with the advent of the Indian Premier League, but for the fact that the Chairman of the franchise the Rajasthan Royals, Manoj Badale, was a Leicester-based businessman. Having helped the unfancied Royals to the inaugural IPL title, Snape impressed the franchise’s other big-name import, Graeme Smith, enough to land his next big job as South Africa’s Mental Conditioning Coach.
Snape’s role from team to team has varied greatly, as has the character and personality of the players he has worked with. Switching from job to job requires little adjustment for a coach or a manager, but a psychologist needs to develop close personal bonds in order to fully understand the mindset of those who he is trying to help. So how has Snape coped with his ever-changing specifications?
“Every team you work with is different and you have to build trust with them rather than coming in with some pre-conceived ideas of what might work. The South African team was fantastic to work with because despite being one of the best sides around, they are very humble and always looking to learn. I was lucky that I could work closely with the players in the nets too, so I was working on the psychology in a very applied way.”
With the effects of an overly-congested international schedule beginning to take its toll, following several high-profile withdrawals from the international scene, the latest being Jonathan Trott from the most recent Ashes tour, the importance of the team psychologist in maintaining a calm and focused collective mindset has become increasingly important. Snape is aware more than most of the challenges facing the current generation of international cricketers.
“The modern era is overloaded with data and analysis, video replays and scrutiny in the moment of performance and then viral social media of blogs and opinions after it. Athletes need to feel that their coping skills are in line with they challenges they face. Taking ownership and breaking things down into chunks is they key.
“The PCA has some great support mechanisms in place for cricketers, I just think that given the congested fixture list, there is no down time anymore. We have to strike the balance between quality and volume.”
The rise of the sports psychologist has been a meteoric one. On Tuesday, Roy Hodgson announced that England will be working with psychiatrist Dr Steven Peters as they prepare for the World Cup in Brazil. But all of this has taken off from such unpromising beginnings.
“Twenty years ago there was little more than a few anecdotes and jokes about people’s mental failings in sport,” says Snape. “Many of the American sports have been pioneers in sports science and they have embraced psychology now as a part of the high-performance system, it’s on the rise in the UK and globally too.”
Snape has said in the past that whilst the 90s were the fitness revolution and the 00s were the sports science revolution, the next frontier will be the mental one. Perhaps now the sporting world is beginning to cotton on to the next revolution.
The British public were spoiled for sporting heroes in the wake of London 2012. However, Sir Ben Ainslie stands out amongst them as a sportsman who had come to dominate his discipline for over a decade.
Ben retired from Olympic sailing after the 2012 Games. He couldn’t have planned his Olympic swansong better: “Racing that final race with tens of thousands of people 100 metres away screaming and cheering you on, it was amazing, for the first time in my life I had some idea of what it must be like to be a professional footballer.”
His most recent success came in the form of Americas Cup glory as part of Team Oracle in San Francisco. Sharing that success with a team was particularly satisfying: “To go through that comeback and that victory with that group of guys was the most rewarding sporting experience I think I’ve ever had. When you do something on your own you live and die by your own actions, but to do it with a group of people was amazing. You often hear about rugby teams sharing a moment that they’ll talk about together 20 years down the line. I think that’s similar to what we achieved, we’ll always have that shared knowledge.”
Despite retiring from the Olympic arena, the prospect of stopping competitive sailing altogether is a long way off: “The Americas cup is really the focus now. I think I really have 10 years at that level, because the role I do there isn’t normally as physical as some of the other roles so I can get away with it. After that who knows?”
He also isn’t ruling out the possibility of competing in longer distance racing: “I love ocean racing, my father sailed in the first Whitbread round the world race. I’ve done a bit of offshore racing in the past and have a few friends that did the Volvo ocean race, that’s something I might be interested in doing in the future. The one offshore challenge that really stands out for me is the Jules Verne record, which is a non-stop around the world race, the record currently stands at 45 days. That’s something that has caught my imagination recently.”
Once the day finally comes where Ben does stop competing he can see himself remaining in the sport in some capacity: “I would like to put something back in once I stop competing, whether that’s coaching or mentoring or in an administrative role. I don’t know. I have a huge amount of respect for Steve Redgrave, what he achieved is still the most outstanding Olympic achievement, even with Chris Hoy and others. I also really admire what Seb Coe has done and the career that he has set up for himself. That’s something that is quite appealing. It’s hard to plan for when you’re still competing though.”
It strikes me the extent to which Ben is tuned into the positive effect that prominent role models can have within the world of sport “I’m naturally quite a private person, but at the same time it’s important to be a good ambassador. It’s good in terms of trying to build up a brand and teams and sponsors and that type of thing, it’s important to try and perform my public role well. One of the biggest thrills about this Americas Cup is the fact that people are excited about watching sailing. Sometimes it’s been hard being a sailor, doing past Olympics when people don’t really understand the sport; that can be a little frustrating at times. I think for our sport it’s fantastic.”
Posterity may eventually gloss over the finer details of Ben’s successes, however it’s important to remember how hard he was made to fight for past victories. On the path to Americas Cup victory Team Oracle won eight races in a row to overhaul an 8-1 deficit. Similarly, to secure Olympic Gold in 2012 he had to usurp the Dane Hogh-Christensen who he trailed for much of the competition: “I’d be lying if I said I never once doubted myself. You go through moments where you’re like ‘this isn’t looking very good’ and you really need to pull something out of the bag here. But it’s good to have that conversation with yourself and. You realise that you have to keep going, and ultimately, to get back into the event you have to work hard.”
It’s this mental toughness that Ben singles out as the one quality that sets the very best apart from the rest: ‘I’ve thought about it a lot. There are many really talented people in this world; I think the difference just comes down to how much you really want it and how hard you are prepared to work for something. You’ve got to be smart about that, there’s no point going and running 20 miles a day and pounding weights in the gym non stop, you’ve got to do it in the right way. Sports psychology is pretty powerful, I remember when I was a kid and they used to bring in sports psychologists and you just used to laugh at it all. Of course, as you get older you realise that it really is the key to everything. You have to be very honest. One of the things I’ve noticed a lot about people who are good but then don’t quite make is that they always have an excuse for something that goes wrong, it’s never really their fault. I think if you’re honest and say ‘Ok well I did make a mistake’, then that goes a long way.”
When Ben isn’t competing he has a particular passion that he likes to indulge…sailing: ‘Oddly enough, I quite enjoy sailing, as a pastime, outside of racing, just having a nice time on the water with friends and family. I’ve been learning to fly for quite a while as well. It’s ridiculous, I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to take that up in the last year or so, but I got stuck into that for a while which was great fun.”
Understandably perhaps, he finds it difficult to imagine himself living his life in any other way than he currently is: “I honestly don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t a sailor. When I was at school I wanted to be in the Navy, and then when I was at college I wanted to be sailor, as in a racing sailor. Actually, I’d love to be a Formula One racing driver.”
We can also take some comfort in the knowledge that there is something that Ben can’t do particularly well: “I like playing golf. My handicap’s absolutely awful. I was at a charity golf match recently; the guy that won it actually said ‘this is the best day of my life, because I’ve beaten Ben Ainslie’. He was much better than me.”
If one thing is true for the fans of London Welsh, it’s that life is never dull. The last five years has seen the once peerless Exiles turn professional, enter administration, gain promotion to The Premiership and suffer the heartbreak of relegation. They have even swapped their spiritual home Old Deer Park, once graced by such Welsh greats as Mervyn Davies and JPR Williams, for a new, more imposing one: The Kassam Stadium in Oxford. ‘The Exiles’, it seems, are exiles once more.
Speak to club captain Matt Corker however, and he will paint you a slightly different picture. A stalwart of the club, and the longest serving player by some margin Corker speaks of a side that is learning and growing, hungry again for its seat at rugby’s high table. “We’ve put together a really strong environment” he stresses, “everybody here has got a point to prove, regardless of what end of their career they’re at. The work ethic is fantastic, and that lifts everyone.”
When rugby players speak of recruiting people with ‘points to prove’, it is easy to be cynical. Indeed one wonders how exactly these individual ‘points’ translate into getting the ball over the line. Yet watching London Welsh’s opening games, a gritty determination is oddly palpable. The Exiles seem to exude a sense of spirit and ‘fight’ perhaps more akin to the club’s amateur roots than the coldly analytical professional game.
As Corker speaks, it becomes clear that those amateur roots are not so far in the past. “When I first came to the club on loan from Wasps [in 2007] we were training Tuesday and Thursday nights and then playing on a Saturday. At Christmas that season we were at the bottom of the table. Since then the club has gone full time. We’ve made strides year on year with the culmination of that being playing in the premiership”
‘That season’ in The Premiership was one of controversy. Until being docked 5 points for fielding an ineligible player, Welsh had successfully avoided the bottom of the table claiming four wins before Christmas and regular losing bonus points. The deduction played a significant part in the club’s relegation and was enough to give major backer Byron Anthony second thoughts – in a subsequent interview he stated his intention to pull out, as he’d “had enough of the RFU and the PRL”.
Corker however, is more inclined to look at the positives. “The club has benefited hugely from last season. Being so close, and doing so well until the points deduction means we know we have what it takes to be a Premiership club. On top of this moving to the Kassam –playing in front of great crowds in a great stadium has been brilliant for the club”
It’s possible that Corker may be laboring this second point somewhat; asked in a recent interview if his number one wish would be to buy the Kassam Stadium, Chairman Bleddyn Phillips quipped he would much rather “have a ten thousand gate”. On the pitch however, is where it really matters, and it is difficult to fault London Welsh so far this season. The Exiles have brought in a host of new faces including rugby journeyman Tom May and ex-Lion Andy Titterrell, under a new coaching team in Justin Burnell and fly half Gordon Ross. They have three wins from three games, with two of those coming against members of last seasons top four, Nottingham and Bedford. Good cause for confidence then, for the seasoned ‘Welsh fan. And yet, asked about the club’s ambitions for the coming season, Corker is almost brutally pragmatic. “The first and only step for now is getting into the top four. We can talk about semi finals and finals but you have to earn those first”. This perhaps, is a response befitting of a player of his experience. It’s a long season in the Championship, an uncompromising league well known for its twist and turns.
I push my luck, and ask Corker to pick his top four. He just laughs. “It’s far too early for that”.
They say a week is a long time in sport, in which case 24 years must be the equivalent to an eternity. Chris Tremlett was just 7 the previous time England won the Ashes down under, but as the 4th ball of his 21st over gently dislodged the bails from Michael Beer’s off-stump, the man from Southampton etched his name into cricket folklore.
“It was quite a surreal tour for me really,” says Tremlett. “It had been a while since I had played for England but in the back of my mind I sort of knew I would get another opportunity at some point, so to play the final three test matches, all of which were absolutely vital and to take the final wicket was awesome.”
Many players do not truly appreciate their achievements until well into their retirement years, so it must be hard for Tremlett to fathom that just that single ball will be talked about as part of Ashes legend.
“It probably didn’t sink in until I got home a couple of months after (England immediately headed off to the World Cup in India) and watching the highlights on the TV and thinking that I had actually been involved with that and how much people had been following it at home. When you’re involved you don’t really realise how much it means to people at home.”
Since that fateful day at a Barmy SCG, Tremlett’s international ambitions have been interrupted by hamstring and back problems respectively. The Surrey man’s Test Stats make for unusual reading.
An international career that began back in 2007 has still only yielded 11 caps, yet his figures are too impressive for such limited international experience spread over half a decade. His average of 26.75 is superior to all the current competitors for a spot in England’s three-ma pace attack.
The Ashes have made fleeting heroes of many a past English cricketer before seeing them fall back into obscurity and for the past couple of years Chris Tremlett has been the forgotten man of English cricket. But with back-to-back Ashes on the horizon, the paceman might just have timed his return to perfection.
[caption id="attachment_41607" align="aligncenter" width="448"] Tremlett starred for England in the most recent Ashes series[/caption]
Named in the England performance squad and given a central contract, Tremlett may have temporarily slipped out the minds of the general public, but he is clearly still very much at the forefront of the selector’s thoughts.
“It’s in the back of my mind I guess and it’s a nice boost to be selected in that squad, to know that they’re still thinking about me and I’m sure there is space for me in that team if I can get back to the way I was bowling before. If I can take wickets for Surrey and get games under my belt then hopefully I can work towards that and it would be great to get back into the England team and the Ashes.”
Evidently England is also very much in the forefront of Tremlett’s thoughts, but he is facing a battle against time. With just 45 days until the first Test at Trent Bridge he has played just two Championship games this season and admits he is yet to cement his place in a competitive Surrey attack.
“It’s been tough and when you haven’t played for a year and being a bit older to can take time to adjust back into 4-day cricket. We’ve got a strong squad at Surrey so it’s quite hard getting back into that team let alone the England set-up.
Tremlett has faced a lengthy lay-off since injuring his back during the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai in 2011, undergoing surgery for a bulging disc 15 months ago. Many sporting stars have lamented the mental frustrations of injury lay-offs, but the former Hampshire man says he can draw strength from his Ashes glory.
“I’ve had a lot of injuries in my time and coming back from operations is hard. You go through a lot of pain and you have to be patient so to have those memories in the back of my mind when I’m doing all that fitness work, it’s good to remember that feeling of what it was like to place in those games, so I hold those memories very closely. It’s definitely the main motivation to keep going.”
In an era where it is becoming more and more commonplace for promising fast-bowlers to have their international dreams forever put on hold by their fragile bodies. One hopes Tremlett’s name will not be added to the list of might-have-beens, whose careers have been ruined by the stresses and strains of the modern game.
With an ever congested fixture schedule, England’s selectors have become ever more conscious of the demands they are placing on their pacemen and have come under attack, even from within their own camp, for their policy of rotating and resting their fast bowlers. Tremlett, however, is a man who knows only too well the importance of looking after your body and is in full support of the pragmatism of the England hierarchy.
“I don’t think the schedule is going to change that much. It’s just the way it is and you just have to accept it so us bowlers have to do what we can to recover as much as we can and the selectors need to be sensible, which they are doing, in resting and rotating guys at the right time.”
So do the selectors know what is better for the players than the players themselves? Was James Anderson a little too vocal in his criticism of England’s rotation policy?
“There’s been a couple of tours which Jimmy Anderson has missed out on which he wouldn’t have wanted to, but I think in the long-term it will turn out best for him and I think that is one of the reasons he doesn’t get injured as much.”
[caption id="attachment_41608" align="alignright" width="205"] Tremlett’s first task will be forcing his way back into a competitive Surrey line-up[/caption]
Upon Michael Owen’s retirement, the striker said that he wished he had not been overplayed as a youngster and wanted to stay in the game so he could make sure the young stars of today would not make the same mistakes he did. So looking back on his career, does this 6ft 7inch giant have any passing words of wisdom to the future generation of fast bowlers?
“They just need to tap into our knowledge and as long as they listen it will certainly help them when they get to a professional leve. Teams are getting better at it though. When I was 19 or 20 I’d never stepped into a gym before and I didn’t know where I had to be strong and what work-outs to do, I just ran up and bowled a cricket ball. But now at 15 or 16 these youngers guys are being told what they should be doing and they’re learning about the rights foods and the right training and they are getting that bit stronger at a younger age.”
At 31 Tremlett is moving into the realm of veteran at his club, imparting his knowledge and experience of the game to Surrey’s young and talented crop of seamers. But at the same time you can’t help but feel that Tremlett’s career is yet to really get going. His return from injury is as exciting as waiting to see a promising debutant unleash his potential on the world scene. A return to the international fold would be in England’s interest. This man is too good to never pull on those Three Lions again.
Tremlett on Oxford
Chris Tremlett was speaking as Surrey CCC took on Oxford MCCU in a 3-day match at the Parks. The England star gave his verdict on the Parks and the opposition:
“It’s been a great experience. Oxford have got some really good players here as well. We never thought we were just going to come here and roll them over. Tom Fell (who scored 56) looks a good player and Owain Jones played some really nice shots, so there is definitely talent there for the future.”
Leading the stats
1. Chris Tremlett: 11 Tests, 49 wickets @ 26.75
2. Steven Finn: 21 Tests, 84 wickets @ 28.94
3. James Anderson : 81 Tests, 305 wickets @ 30.14
4. Stuart Broad: 56 Tests, 191 wickets @ 31.15
Stats correct as of 26th May
PHOTOS/adam.gasson; PlasticYabby; alan gilmour
It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the London 2012 Olympic Games, with Steve Redgrave, Prince William and David Beckham all becoming objects of speculation. In the end, however, the organisers of the games decided to substantiate their tagline, “Inspire a generation,” with a bold gesture and selected a group of six young athletes from around the country to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony. Aidan Reynolds, a first year Physicist and javelin thrower from University College, was one of them.
“Each of us were selected by a British Olympic Legend in recognition of our potential to go ahead and compete at a future Olympic Games. I was selected by Lynn Davies, a Welsh Long Jumper who was a former Olympic Champion in 1964.”
Competing in Macedonia at the time, Aidan received a phone call asking him to take part in the monumental event, but was not told the whole story.
“I found out I was going to be involved in the ceremony two weeks before but did not find out my actual role in the ceremony until I stood in the stadium for our first rehearsal!”
The chosen six spent a week in London during the run-up to the ceremony, attending four one-hour rehearsals where they practised with sticks before getting their hands on the real torches.
“It was a huge secret and nobody was allowed to know. We were only allowed to bring one person with us so I took my sister…not even my parents knew what I would be doing until it happened. Keeping a close eye on the betting for who would be lighting the cauldron and talking very loudly about it kept us all amused whenever we were out and about!”
So, how did it feel to play a starring role in “the greatest show on earth”?
“I can’t explain how amazing it was. From the moment I got the news I was buzzing for the whole week. [It was] something I will never forget; to be given that honour is unbelievable and just being in that stadium was the greatest experience. Let’s just hope I can make another opening ceremony in the future, only next time as an athlete.”
With the European Junior Championships and the 2014 Commonwealth Games both coming up, Aidan is training for two-hour sessions 12 times a week and says he’s just about managing to juggle javelin with his academic work.
“The hardest part is travelling to Loughborough every weekend to meet my coach because otherwise while I am at uni I get no coaching and have to motivate and work everything out for myself.”
On the subject of his own Olympic ambitions, Aidan is reluctant to commit himself to the Rio 2016 Games, but it is safe to say that a second appearance in an Olympic opening ceremony is well and truly on the table.
“2016 is a possibility but possibly too early for me as in javelin it is unlikely you’ll peak until you are at least in your late 20s, but I am keeping it on the horizon and definitely looking towards 2020 if not 2016.”
PHOTO / Aidan Reynolds
1. Focus – as a wicketkeeper it is crucial to focus on every delivery. You have the potential to be involved in every ball and many keepers can be guilty of switching off when there is a lull in play. Switching off at an opportune moment can leave you looking and feeling embarrassed.
2. Leg work – lateral explosive movements can be important when taking a diving catch or scurrying after a stray delivery down the leg side. Your feet need to be fast in these instances, so ladder drills are ideal for improvement. In addition to pace, stamina is also required. In a 50 over match as a keeper, you will perform at least 300 bodyweight squats, therefore towards the end the thighs may really begin to feel the fatigue setting in. The end of the innings can be pivotal in deciding a fixture therefore you need to be as sharp then as you were at ball one.
3. Timing – being fast and dynamic is useful but only if your timing is up to speed as well. Timing a dive can result in maximum reach, but if you come up from your stance too early then you may face a ball through the legs. For me, the main point here is timing for going down the leg side. Keepers may have the tendency to head down the leg side as soon as they see it drifting that way. However, this often can result in blinding yourself behind the batsman. The key is to pick the line and length of the ball on the off side and then move to the leg side with a picture of where the ball will be.
4. Head positioning – this is a relatively simple concept: it’s easier catching a ball which is closer to your eyes. Naturally if you draw your head away from the ball, then your bodyweight and hands will go with it which isn’t ideal. If you can catch the ball under your eyes you will be in good stead. A good example of this is catching around 0.5m either side of your body. Instead of sticking your hands out and snatching you will be more successful if you turn your chest towards the ball allowing the eyes and head to follow and opening up the hands.
5. Motivation – cricket can seem to go on for a very long time, trust me, and the rest of the team may feel this too. As a keeper you are at the centre point of the match and have the best view of how the pitch is behaving. As a result it is important to keep your team mates enthused and the energy up and to also report to the skipper of any things you pick up which he may have missed.
PHOTO / Richardavis
[caption id="attachment_39568" align="alignright" width="300"] Sean Morris dives over for a try against the South Wales Scorpions[/caption]
Many things have divided the North and South of England over the years, but not many have done so quite as distinctively as the schism between Rugby Union and Rugby League, with the respective codes very much taking residence in just one half of the country.
Ever since the split in 1895 over the issue of payments to the working-class players in the North the divide between rugby in the North and South has been distinct; only 2 of the teams in the top tier of League come from outside the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria and these sides have tended to languish at the bottom of the table.
The creation of a Rugby League club in Oxford is part of an RFL initiative designed to spread the demographic of Rugby League and ORL are one of three new clubs to have been created in Championship One, the third tier of the sport and OURFC Blue and now ORL winger Sean Morris is positive about the start that the club has made:
“By all accounts we are holding it together, considering it’s a completely fresh squad but we’re gelling quickly. I think it helps that we’ve got a very good set-up behind us and I think we will continue to progress.”
The side have won one and lost one, going down narrowly 22-20 to South Wales in the first game at Iffley. The match attracted 352 supporters, which although is not quite what one would expect for a full Blues game, is a figure that Morris describes as a “pretty strong effort for a first run-out.”
Indeed the scale of the task facing the club is illustrated by Morris’ stated aims for the season on the squad profiles page of the club website: “To learn how to play Rugby League.”
[caption id="attachment_39565" align="alignright" width="199"] Oxford jog out for their first game at Iffley[/caption]
There have been many famous converts from League to Union, but making the switch the other way around is not so common. “The game on Saturday was only my fourth game so I still don’t really know what I’m doing and the others are shouting at me telling me what to do. I’d say the biggest difference is at the breakdown because there’s no ruck. It feels weird making a tackle and then that’s it, you just have to release. It’s made me realise how much I enjoyed that aspect of the game in Union.
“But because of that the game is a lot quicker and so fitness is crucial, especially with having retreat 10 every time. Tackling is different as well; they tend to run straighter and harder because it’s all about making yards until the final play, so you get bigger hits. In Union I was used to making a lot of tackles around the legs but League is not like that,” says Morris.
The Oxford Blue says that the first season is all about consolidating playing-wise but adds that a lot of work is being put in behind the scenes in terms of outreach with council schemes aiming to spread the game within the community, with particular focus on the future and a concentration on youth involvement.
With the possibility of London Welsh moving out of Oxford following their relegation from the Premiership, it may be that Oxford is turned into one of the pioneering League towns of the South in the not-so-distant future.
PHOTOS/Oxford Rugby League
[caption id="attachment_39143" align="alignright" width="283"] Mills in Championship action in 2012[/caption]
As much as London Welsh’s ascension to English rugby’s top flight involved a drawn out struggle with the game’s governing bodies, it seems that their eventual retreat to the second tier may well have followed a similar path. Captain Jonathan Mills is a proud man at a proud club, but even he concedes that Welsh’s five-point deduction for fielding Tyson Keats, an ineligible player, has been a bitter pill to swallow:
“It’s a tough one, we felt cheated in a way – it was obviously disappointing with us losing five points, but after the initial shock we just had to get on with and try to win rugby games. But even without that we felt we were good enough to stay in this league.”
As Mills speaks one gets the sense that his side is not wholly satisfied with the slightly acrimonious nature of their departure. “We felt we were good enough” is a recurrent sound-bite throughout the interview. Indeed Welsh have defied many pre-season doubters, securing four wins and seven losing bonus points, with three of those coming against the Premiership’s top four. Some resilient displays have proven that clubs with limited resources can mix it with the big guns of English rugby.
Driven by a steely determination and self-belief, the Exiles surprised many with their impressive start to the campaign, bagging 19 points in their opening ten games. At one point it looked as if mid-table safety and even Heineken Cup rugby was a distinct possibility, but form has dramatically deserted Mills’ team in the second half of the season, failing to register a single win and recording just 4 bonus points.
There are few people who have not welcomed London Welsh’s return to prominence in English rugby, so the fact that their season promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver has come as an even greater disappointment. But Mills insists that there was no shifting of expectations, no building up of hopes leading to a heavy fall.
“Before the season, we as players were confident in our ability and we felt we were able to stay up anyway no matter what those pre-season expectations of us were. I don’t think we changed our own expectations that we were good enough to stay up but maybe as we got a little bit of a gap we started to believe and we were a lot closer to achieving our goals.”
In fact Mills and his side came within a cat’s whisker of achieving their goals, and much closer than the table may now suggest. A 25-26 defeat at the Kassam to Sale in February is just one of many flashpoints throughout the season, but the hammer blow came over an extended weekend in March. On the Friday evening Sale held out for a nail-biting single point victory over Bath, before Welsh conceded a try in the final five minutes to Gloucester to lose by the same margin on the Saturday. Four points either way and Welsh would have been level with Sale rather than six points behind.
“I’ve got to say fair play to Sale. They really turned the corner since the New Year. The funny thing is they’ve had a couple of lucky results. But that’s rugby, so did we earlier in the season. I don’t think you can put it down to one area or turning point. Sale have gone out and earned the right to stay in the league and fair play to them. We’re frustrated in a sense, we feel we’re good enough but ultimately we have fallen short. We’ve set ourselves a goal of finishing within five points of the team above and then us as players will know that we were good enough to stay up and that will mean that the points deduction was the reason we went down.’ Like any chivalrous rugby captain, Mills is gracious in defeat.
Sadly, however, our interview came a couple of days before a heavy defeat to London Irish, making that aim now a mathematical impossibility. And as Mills mulls over the other possible explanations for his side’s dramatic slump in form, there is once again a sense of what might have been.
“At the beginning of the season we weren’t getting injuries and we were getting wins and I think that’s the reason why we were. If you look at the team sheets between now and then they’re very different. I highlight Hudson Tonga’uiha in the centre. He’s such a massive player for us and the last game he played was our last win against London Irish. Some of the other Premiership teams are able to rotate their squads in order to keep players fit and we haven’t been able to do that.”
[caption id="attachment_39147" align="aligncenter" width="415"] Welsh have enjoyed the challenge of fronting up against the powerhouses of English rugby[/caption]
It is strange to think that a club that has contributed 177 players to the Welsh national team and 43 to the British & Irish Lions over its 127-year history is struggling to compete on resources. But financial troubles have blighted their recent past and five-point deductions are not in fact unfamiliar territory for the club. In 2009 they received that same penalty for falling into administration but their recovery has been swift and their climb back into the Premiership last season was a remarkable story.
Wrapped in nostalgia and throwing back to the amateur era of Welsh’s all conquering sides, there was a sense that the club was back where it belonged. Many within the game will hope that relegation is just a momentary blip in the long trek back to the summit. Naturally, Mills feels a sense of mission to restore his prestigious club’s former status.
“I’ve always said that this club, with what it has done in the past, is a club that should be at the top end. I think that the experience that we have got from this season will only help us next year and drive us to get back here.”
But getting there is one thing, and staying quite another. So what would the club do differently next time around, assuming that is only a brief stay in what is an extremely competitive Championship division?
“It’s a tough one. You need a bit of luck, especially with the squad size we have got. Without the club saying they are going to spend an extra million than they have on ten quality players, there is not a lot we can do. You’ve got to live within your means. Maybe that is where Premiership Rugby and everyone else need to look at themselves. Whereas the top teams get £3.5 million in funding, teams like us just get £1.5 million in funding, which is kind of flawed in a way. You would think that the team coming up would need the most investment.”
Whilst funds have been tight, the club were able to loosen the purse strings over the summer to sign the one-man headline generator Gavin Henson. The former pin-up boy of Welsh rugby could have been considered a potentially dangerous signing, arriving as he did with as many bust-ups and Hello! magazine stories as his 33 international caps. But Henson has let his rugby do the talking this season with a string of impressive performances Mills is plainly delighted with his impact.
[caption id="attachment_39145" align="alignright" width="215"] Gavin Henson has impressed Mills with some outstanding displays[/caption]
“Gavin’s come in and you can see he has wanted to work. Against Sale he nearly won us the game on his own. We can see the love he has for the game and for us as players it’s great to play with someone who has played for the British Lions and for Wales in so many games. It’s a joy to play with someone like that.”
So even with the disappointment of eventual relegation, it has been a season to remember for the Exiles but also a season to remember for the city of Oxford. The move to the Kassam came about as a way of allowing the club to meet the RFU’s entry requirements but speculation has now begun as to whether they will stay there.
Club chairman Bleddyn Phillips has had no concern to downplay the importance of any potential move or otherwise, stating that “a number of key decisions need to be made regarding the future of the club.” Clearly there are split loyalties, with certain members feeling that the club should return to their roots at Old Deer Park, whilst there is also a strong argument that stresses the need to build on crowds that have reached as high as 10,000 if the Exiles are to realise their ambitions.
“I think there is a real need for rugby in the area and I think it would be silly not to look at that. But the people who make that decision will make it based on what is best for the club long-term. We’ve loved our time playing in Oxford and we can really see how many people have bought into supporting London Welsh and you can only think that that will continue to grow in the future. So if we stay in Oxford it will be brilliant to build on the support that we have got from this year,” says Mills as we conclude our conversation.
It may prove to be a critical decision. To stay at a larger stadium may be to overextend the club’s limited means, but if the side are as good as their captain believes them to be they need to find a stadium that can fulfil their lofty Premiership ambitions. It seems only proper that they should do so within the dreaming spires of Oxford.
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