To Prepare or Not to Prepare?

In 2003, Martin Johnson lifted the Rugby World Cup. His England were, without argument, the best prepared team in the tournament, a group who had spent 3-4 years working towards this ultimate goal. England lost their visionary coach and inspirational captain shortly after the World Cup, and have spent the subsequent years in the rugby wilderness. New Zealand arrived in France in 2007 carrying England’s old mantle of best team in the world, likeliest to succeed. Like Woodward’s England, the All Blacks did their homework over 2004-7, developing, thinking, growing. They, not England, were the ready men. Other teams feared them and wanted to avoid them. When England surprised themselves by beating Australia, the first thought of many over here was that it was all going to end in tears in the next round, where we’d meet New Zealand, who’d put in four good years creating the thrilling and unstoppable side… that lost to France in the Quarter Finals.

What a blow for the out and out sporting professionals. The ones who make their own luck. The attention to detail men. The thinkers and the planners. It’s England, capably patched together by Brian Ashton, who will be in tomorrow’s final. New Zealand, who did everything right except to win against France, have gone home, taking nothing but failed potential and the memories of dented airport cars with them.

It is both a frustration and a beauty of sport that you can spend years in getting yourself ready, either as a team or as an individual, only to lose on the day to someone who has neither your talent or tenacity or persistence.

Is it really worth putting all that work in? Does the All Blacks experience tell us that, after all, natural talent, passion and commitment win out over professionalism, hard work and development?

Sometimes, yes, sometimes no. Without that uncertainty, sport would hardly be worth watching.

Noel Cantwell joined Manchester United in 1960 from West Ham, where he’d been coached by Ron Greenwood. Many years later, he told Leo McKinstry how surprised he was at the state of Old Trafford at the time:

There was no proper coaching whatsoever. No one at Old Trafford knew anything about coaching. Training was so boring it would drive you mad. We would just have a few laps, a five-a-side, and sometimes a game at the back of the stands, where people kicked the fuck out of each other. . Out on the field, there did not seem to be any system or pattern. We were just a team of individuals and I wanted to see us playing for each other. People would not come and help, as they had done at West Ham… At West Ham we’d had modern training gear. But at Old Trafford, it was all great big old sweaters and socks full of holes.. It would remind you of being in prison.

Eamonn Dunphy, another 1960 arrival at Old Trafford, has described the Matt Busby of the time as still “a wreck” after Munich, and never to be again the man he had been before that. Jimmy Murphy, Busby’s number two and a huge influence on the Busby Babes, was also suffering after-effects, and had taken to drink.

But the situation persisted – when John Giles left in 1963 – taking with him his FA Cup Winner’s medal, which tells you something – he found a quite different set-up at Revie’s Leeds:

When I arrived at Leeds, it was totally different. There was great attention to detail. Don (Revie) would be out there on the training field, putting things right week by week. And the atmosphere at Elland Road was different from Old Trafford, where there were a lot of players who did not get on.

Between the arrival of Giles at Leeds and the retirement of Matt Busby, Leeds won one league title to Manchester United’s two, and the Inter-City Fairs Cup against Manchester’s European Cup. Leeds won the Fairs Cup one more time in the 1970s, but that would prove to be Leeds’ peak insofar as that level of competition was concerned.

Even Liverpool, emerging from a similar situation to that of Revie’s Leeds, won two 1960s titles and an FA Cup, without ever venturing into the kind of professionalism, thinking and effort that went on at Leeds.

And yet – Leeds were, after all, so close, constantly, to greater things. And wasn’t Revie guilty of being too professional with his lads? Weren’t they a transformed side in the early 1970s when he finally let them off the leash? Clough’s Derby players felt that Revie kept his team too tense to be entirely themselves when it came to the crucial ties.

It’s not that the All Blacks, or Leeds, prove that proper preparation is a waste of time. But they do prove, once and for all, that in sport – do what you will beforehand – you will need your luck on the day. And I think they show that a little laughter in the right place doesn’t go amiss.

One successful manager is rumoured to have brought booze onto the team bus. Before the games. Naming no names..