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Marginal gains a big deal for England
You can have your huge hits and your big brutes, but sometimes in rugby it’s the little things that really make the difference.
Take week three in the RBS 6 Nations; two matches and four points in them as Scotland saw off Italy by one and England edged Ireland by three.
The language of marginal gains has entered the sporting lexicon courtesy of a winning machine – or should that be a spinning machine? – based in Manchester, British Cycling.
The knight of all things two wheels, no, not Sir Wiggo but the other one, Sir Dave Brailsford, is a devotee to the doctrine of the marginal gains principle to eke out the slightest, minutest advantage.
It’s the same attention to detail that bought success and a sword tap on the shoulder at Buckingham Palace for England’s World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward.
Where Sir Clive approved skin-tight kits to make it harder for tacklers to grab a handful of his players as part of his “100 things 1% better” mantra, Sir Dave wrapped his athletes in ‘hot pants’ in the London 2012 velodrome to prevent their legs from cooling down between warm-ups and races.
The idea came from Matt Parker, then head of Marginal Gains at British Cycling and now Head of Athletic Performance at the RFU.
And the 38-year-old is bringing fresh ideas to rugby and Stuart Lancaster’s regime.
In assessing all aspects of the set-up, he hopes to help gain that extra 1% that may prove crucial, be it in this year’s RBS 6 Nations or next year’s World Cup.
His most telling contribution to date has been the re-vamp of the Twickenham dressing rooms, which has got the thumbs-up from players and staff.
It includes position-specific booths that feature the names of all the players who have gone before them in that shirt and messages from loved ones and supporters, helping further cement the link between player and fan.
Sweeping prominently across the futuristic ceiling is the Parker mantra: “Hard Work, Discipline, Honesty.”
But the physiology graduate insists you cannot create clear direction towards a winning culture and the relentless pursuit of excellence through achieving just one goal.
It is a process of helping the player by minute amounts in terms of fitness, planning, diet, attitude and motivation so they all add up to that all-important marginal gain.
As well as the Twickenham makeover, the training base at Surrey’s Pennyhill Park is having a multi-million pound, purpose-built 40mx40m 3G pitch, complete with high-tech gym.
There’s also a project under way to assess how individual players sweat to help kit design as well as tailored recovery programmes.
And Parker’s diary is full until the World Cup final in October 2015 with each step this squad of players and staff will take, including when they will turn to evening training to replicate the 2000 GMT kick-off times they will have in the tournament.
A one-time colleague at UK Sport and former Bath and England lock Nigel Redman described Parker as “brilliant at cutting through the bull***”.
All England supporters will be hoping his studious, specific, no-nonsense approach will help Chris Robshaw’s men cut through opposition defences, from Wales on Sunday until next year’s World Cup final, equally as effectively.
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