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Exclusive Interview with Nutritionist for Ireland's National Rugby Team

Exclusive Interview with Nutritionist for Ireland's National Rugby Team

“Yes, we are Irish, and we do like our potatoes,” says Ruth Wood-Martin, the sports nutritionist for Ireland’s national rugby team. “But not every day: we mix it up with whole grains, couscous, and quinoa.” I’m not sure what’s more surprising: that a national rugby team employs a full-time nutritionist, or the thought of a massive, broken-nosed lad from Limerick eschewing spuds for a plate of couscous and quinoa. This is the state of modern professional sports nutrition.

Whether it’s international professional rugby or American football, we have seen stratospheric advancement — and money spent — on equipment, specialists, practice facilities, and work-out rooms, all designed to achieve the competitive advantage. Yet nothing is more instrumental in helping premium athletes stay at their peak performance than a nutrient-based diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Today, most professional teams in America and Europe have a sports nutritionist on staff, either as a consultant or a full-time employee.

Ruth Wood-Martin has a Master’s degree and over 20 years as a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist. She has been full-time with the Irish Rugby Football Union, the national team of Ireland, for the past eight years. She counsels every player, translating the science of nutrition into a practical way of eating. “Wellness” is the number goal of a sports nutritionist, Ruth says: “To delay fatigue and enhance recovery. The power of food is amazing.” She notes, “because these are elite athletes, their energy requirements are quite high.” Filling those extreme energy requirements with nutrient-rich meals can be a challenge for players with a predilection for high-fat, processed food. When the team is in camp, or traveling for games, Ruth Wood-Martin oversees every team meal. “Variety is key,” she explains. “Last evening was our Asian-themed night.” In this regard, the Irish certainly have it right. “Food is more than just fueling the body with nutrients: there is a social aspect as well,” Ruth says. This is Irish rugby, after all, not a table of elite athletes ingesting flavorless nutrition with the automatronic fervor of some 1980s Soviet Olympic team. Eating healthfully can be fun, delicious, and entertaining.

Similar considerations are made in the NFL. The New York Giants employ Tara Ostrowe, their team nutritionist, to counsel players on individual nutrition plans. “In the NFL, a player’s size and role on the field vary tremendously, and, therefore, the nutrition plans vary to meet their specialized needs,” says Ostrowe. Additionally, “the Giants have an unbelievable dining hall with a wide assortment of healthy, fresh food for post-practice meals.” It’s hard not to picture these massive players corralling a 64-ounce prime rib with hulking biceps, triceps, and forearm, their fists standing sentry with a large knife while their other arm shovels in buttery, bloody meat between occasional grunts. That carnivore era , with a capital C, is mostly gone, retired around the time Michael Strahan traded ubiquity in opposing backfields for ubiquity on television. Today, Ostrowe explains, at the New York Giants camp, “the meal consists of a few different lean protein choices such as roasted fish or grilled chicken, colorful cooked vegetables, a large salad bar with many nutrient toppings, fresh fruit salad, and whole grain carbohydrate choices such as brown rice and quinoa.”

Professional teams employing a nutritionist is a relatively new practice. As you might expect, Ruth Wood-Martin and Tara Ostrowe see a huge difference in the dietary habits of the younger and older athletes. Yet both nutritionists have found that the skeptical, old-school veterans are rapidly buying into the program, because they see the benefits of nutrient-based diets. “As they get older,” says Ruth, “they tend to focus more on their nutrition; they can’t get away with it anymore.” The “it” is eating whatever they want, whenever they want. There’s a big difference between a 25-year-old professional athlete and a 35-year-old one in energy, endurance, healing, and recovery. All of which is greatly enhanced with a proper diet.

The competitive tool that Ruth and Tara are asked about the most is sports supplements. In the NFL, supplements are exhaustively monitored. Any Giants player considering a sports supplement not on the approved list, even if it was purchased at the local Rite Aid, must consult with Tara Ostrowe first. On the Emerald Isle, the reconnoiter over sports supplements is by a national sports authority, and the process is so rigorous that every athlete under 18 years of age is strongly dissuaded from taking any. In the end, both nutritionists are in agreement: although there are times when a professional athlete can benefit from a sports supplement, their mantra is always “food first!”

Every NFL team has some sort of dietary consultant, but, of the 32 teams, only seven have made sports nutritionist a full-time position. The NFL season has ended, and the dietary demands of football players are adapted to the off-season. Rugby, however, is just beginning. The premier rugby championship in Europe is the 6 Nations tournament, comprised of the very best teams in the Northern Hemisphere: Ireland, France, Scotland, Italy, Wales, and England. This is where Ruth Wood-Martin’s job goes from dietary consultant and advisor to logistics table general.

When traveling to different countries, Ruth liaises with the hotel chef in each country, smartly forwarding her guidelines and asking for their menu options. This allows the host country’s hotel to create a menu they are comfortable with:, no Draconian demands from this nutritionist. Ruth works with each hotel’s existing bill of fare, whittling it down to a nutrient-dense optimum menu with the proper mixture of health and variety. Even in countries that don’t often host international rugby, the hotel’s chef is typically quite amenable, Ruth says. What’s universal, however, is the continued amazement of the staff at the sheer volume of food consumed by the rugby team.

Like the NFL, the 6 Nations teams each use their sports nutritionists in different ways. Scotland, for example approaches sports nutrition with a seriousness similar to Ireland. The cuisine of France matches their rugby team’s excellence, haughtiness, and secrecy: the team remains evasive about what, exactly, their players eat.

Says Ruth Wood-Martin about the dietary guidelines of the continuously victorious, French rugby team, “I’d love to be a fly on the wall in those meetings!” Since 1909, France has bested Ireland 55 times; Ireland emerged victorious in only 31 matches.

Saturday, February 14, Ireland beat France 18-11 in a brutal match where endurance was the determining factor. Well, maybe couscous and quinoa aren’t so bad after all… or was it Asian night?


Gregor Townsend: 'There is no bigger test than going to Twickenham'

E ven the taxing challenge of coaching in a global pandemic has failed to dent Gregor Townsend’s appetite for knowledge. As another strange and Covid-ravaged Six Nations tournament limps towards us, Scotland’s head coach leads his team to Twickenham on Saturday to face England. His preparations, like those of every other coach, have been disrupted but Townsend stresses how much he has learned this past year.

“It’s a huge amount,” he says of the fresh ideas he has accumulated. “We’ve had to coach differently in different situations. Instead of being in small team rooms we’ve been talking in big lecture theatres, doing coaching sessions on Zoom, speaking to players with masks on. But the time we’ve had at home meant that the amount of learning we could do was unprecedented. The chance to learn from others around the world was a huge bonus.

“After the first few weeks of reviewing Six Nations games on Zoom, our analyst said: ‘How about a Takeaway Tuesday where we open our contact books and bring someone in as a guest for us to take away some learning?’ We soon had two on a Tuesday, three on a Wednesday, one on a Friday. An early standout was Craig Bellamy [the Australian coach of Melbourne Storm, the rugby league team who won the NRL grand final last October]. We also spoke to a couple of guys from Richmond Tigers [the Australian rules football team] and swapped ideas with people in hockey – Max Caldas, the Dutch coach, and Danny Kerry, the GB coach.

“We did a Zoom session with Roberto Martínez and Shaun Maloney, who coach Belgium’s football team, and spoke to many others. The more we listened the more clear it became that building relationships and wellbeing were key factors in their success. So we formed a spin-off group and spoke to psychologists and it was really educational.”

Townsend admits coaching in these distressing times has also been draining and surreal. “Coaching on Zoom is pretty bizarre,” he says. “On one session there were 109 players on the call but it still feels as if you are presenting to nobody because you don’t see their faces. But we got beyond the bizarre elements and put small groups together and gave them projects to look at. Before that it was complicated because we would have said we’ll meet in Glasgow or Edinburgh or fly to wherever you’re based. Now we could get five people on a call and share ideas easily.”

He now has his Scotland squad in camp as they look forward to Saturday’s game. But Covid safety protocols mean there is the added complexity of reading the mood of players beneath their masks. “Team meetings now take place in massive lecture theatres. At first I didn’t like it because I felt we weren’t getting that close proximity of 35 people. But the quality of your analysis tends to be so much better and the players like the massive screens. It feels like you’re in a NFL team room. So there are pros and cons but uncertainty is the biggest challenge – not knowing if the tournament is going ahead, when we’ll get our players or how many games they’ve played. But in camp it becomes clearer and a more traditional way of how we beat England.”

The last time Scotland played a Six Nations match at Twickenham, in 2019, they trailed 31-0 after 29 minutes. But then, in an astonishing turnaround, Townsend’s players scored six tries without reply. Scotland led 38-31 until the 83rd minute when George Ford converted his own try. A 38-38 draw at Twickenham, where Scotland last beat England in 1983, almost felt like another defeat.

Scotland’s Darcy Graham scores against England during a 38-38 draw at Twickenham in January 2019: ‘It was the most unbelievable game I’ve been involved in,’ says Gregor Townsend. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

“It was the most unbelievable game I’ve been involved in,” says Townsend, who won 82 caps for Scotland. “We were really poor in the first 30 minutes and England were very good. But we had two moments at the end of the first half that gave some confidence. One was Stuart McInally’s charge-down and run for a try. Another one was a defensive set before half-time. England had the ball but we not only held the line but pushed them back. We still went in 31-7 down at half-time.”


A Letter From the Editor

Gareth Thomas is both staggeringly normal and utterly unique. Normal in the sense that he&rsquos a 45-year-old man of simple pleasures. Typical in the way that he still lives in the small, Welsh town of Bridgend, where he was raised. Unexceptional (these days, at least) in that he is a happily married gay man.

But Gareth Thomas is also an extraordinary individual. Extraordinary by virtue of his feats as a rugby player: Wales captain, British and Irish Lions captain, second-highest try-scorer for his country. Remarkable for recently completing an Ironman in a little over 12 hours. Unique because, shortly before this feat, he became the first British sportsman to publicly announce that he is HIV positive.

Of course, Gareth now becomes the first sportsman living with HIV to grace the cover of Men&rsquos Health, too. But this is no mere footnote. I made the decision to approach Gareth with the offer of a cover profile because, soon after he made his bold announcement in September, it struck me that he symbolises a positive, thought-provoking change in the way our culture now perceives masculinity.

At a time when boorish, chauvinistic male stereotypes are rightly being hung out to dry, Gareth represents a more complex, nuanced model. He is the brave, battle-scarred warrior with the tender heart the leader of men who chooses the love of men. Early on, his mental struggles outweighed his physical demands. Now, burdened by an incurable disease, he fights his prognosis with a two-pronged attack, drawing on physical and mental support. Put simply, Gareth Thomas is breaking the male mould. As he put it to us: &ldquoI wanted to do this because who&rsquod have thought, 20 or 30 years ago, that a man living with HIV could be in a magazine like Men&rsquos Health?&rdquo

MH Meets Gareth Thomas

Fearless warrior, sporting hero, sexuality mould-breaker: Gareth Thomas is a born maverick. Now, as he continues to test his own limits while living with HIV, Thomas is redefining the true meaning of strength

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CW: I've been following the Lions situation with great interest. Everybody wants the tour to take place, yet it is such a difficult scenario you are dealing with. The latest news seems more encouraging with the plan to tour as originally planned, but getting fans to the games remains a massive issue. Everything seems to change so quickly with Covid.

JL: In one way it's very fluid — I can be talking to one of the guys in South Africa on the Friday and things have changed by our next call on Monday — but in another way, the situation is quite clear. Our intention has always been to tour South Africa until or unless somebody in authority tells us that we can't.

The Lions are a touring team, that's what we do, that is our DNA. Finding a way of making it happen has always been our approach. Ideally there will still be some spectator capacity at the grounds. The fans are very important to us. It wouldn't be our famous wall of red, but it would be a presence which would be great.

CW: So you haven't given up on some fans attending?

JL: If that can't happen, if it has to be behind closed doors, then that works for us as well. The lads from all four home unions have been producing some amazing rugby for club and country in recent months in empty stadia. They have adapted brilliantly. We are confident it won't affect their intensity and passion.

We needed to explore other options. We had the kind offer from the Aussies to host the series and that for me was an example of the rugby family working together. We also considered postponing it for a year but a Lions tour and a World Cup in back-to-back seasons worked for nobody, and we looked at the practicalities of a home series.

Leonard says a potential lack of fans 'won't affect intensity and passion' of the Lions stars

CW: I am pleased that you as a distinguished former Lion, who holds the concept dear, has been at the forefront of this. Maybe the big worry is that the decision would be more of a financial one.

The Lions ethos must remain paramount because that is what matters most to the players and supporters. Lose that 'magic' and all could be lost going forward. So, touch wood, we have a tour but how is this going to work practically? Bubbles, hotels, itinerary, squad size.

Most Lions in my experience rate the South Africa tour as the greatest tour of all — amazing rugby, great country, the people, climate, rounds of golf, winery visits, barbecues on the beach. I toured with the Lions in 1980 as a 23-year-old and it was simply the best playing experience bar none. I loved every second of it, but 2021 is clearly going to be different.

JL: Different, unique, difficult, but hopefully still memorable. We have to accept that the traditional South Africa tour is impossible. But that does not mean that it won't be an inspiring tour that people still talk about in 50 years' time. For me, Lions tours are always about overcoming the odds. They have to be difficult, that's the whole point of the challenge.

Four very different competing teams and nations coming together, virtually zero preparation time, different combinations getting to know each other, playing the strongest nations in the world on their home turf. This is the third South Africa tour on the hoof when they will be the world champions. Harsh climate, heat, altitude, hard grounds — that is unique to South African rugby and those challenges remain.

Sir Clive and Leonard seen together during their time with the England national team in 2003

CW: Agreed, the Lions keep touring not because it's easy but because it is difficult. Do you think the players can adapt in time, keep their discipline and morale high in a testing, restricted environment? In one way my heart goes out to them — to view South Africa from the hotel window will be hard — but it's still a Lions series against the Boks. For every player it will still be a dream come true.

JL: I believe they will because the modern players are ultimate professionals. We will have to operate in a bubble but sports teams around the world have learnt to deal with that. There will be laws and strict regulations to obey. I talk as somebody who broke a few rules and regs on tour in my time, as you know, Clive. But that was then, this is now. It's only for five or six weeks of your life, the guys will adapt and cope.

CW: You weren't known as the 'fun bus' without good reason but that also means there is no one better equipped to be the poacher turned gamekeeper, and heaven help any player who decides to cross you. The trend these days is always for bigger squads to cover every eventuality.

I wonder if there isn't a case this summer for a smaller streamlined group, because there is no jet-lag to worry about? They will be living on top of each other in the hotel, they will need to stay tight and together, a bigger squad might make that even more of a challenge.

JL: We are looking at that. My gut feeling is we need to pare back a little and reduce the risks of picking up a random Covid positive. But we must not go overboard. We must not be under-resourced for a series against the Boks. And the mix needs to be good. There is going to be a lot of downtime in the hotel without everybody disappearing to their rooms and their smart phones and computers. The entertainment committee will be very busy, a big appointment!

CW: Yes, that chemistry needs to be strong. Even though we lost the series 3-1 in 1980, the chemistry among the lads was great. I made friends for life — I not only played with but shared a room with the great Welsh centre Ray Gravell, who was tragically taken from us far too early.

Generating that spirit is part of the art and science of selection. What is your experience of the Lions brotherhood and getting that camaraderie right?

Leonard during his playing pomp with the Lions, under pressure from Chad Alcock (left)

JL: I always remember in 1993, my first Lions tour, turning up for our pre-tour bonding camp at a hotel in Surrey, and I wandered into the team room with a few of my England colleagues. The Welsh, Scots and Irish were just the same.

We all did it automatically but Ian McGeechan wasn't having any of it. He sent us all back out of the room and told us to come in again as a proper squad. Sit with somebody who wasn't from your own nation. 'You leave your nationality at that door, for the next eight weeks you are a Lion,' insisted Geech. So simple but I never forgot it.

You have to park your ego, it is the team that counts at all times. I started the 1997 tour leading the Lions in Port Elizabeth for the tour opener against Eastern Province — captain for the day, a huge honour and personal high. But Tom Smith and Paul Wallace emerged as the Test props. They were on fire and, along with Keith Wood, were exactly the right front-row combo against the huge Boks pack.

I had been a Test starter in '93 in New Zealand but now my team role became to support them in every way I could at training and to give my all in the midweek games to make sure we maintained momentum. My only Test action was a few minutes off the bench during the First Test in Cape Town, but 1997 was my favourite tour of all. We were such a close group, everybody contributing. That's the magic we must preserve.

Sam Warburton (centre), Jack Nowell (left) and Rhys Webb seen during the 2017 Lions tour

CW: A Lions tour hits you from all angles — the challenge of playing the strongest teams in the world on their home patch. Nothing is easy and straightforward.

JL: Firstly the rugby is unbelievably hard, everybody you play against wants to take you down, and it can catch up on you.

CW: I hope you can capture some of that camaraderie this summer. Even under difficult circumstances the characters always come to the fore, the Lions always have big characters.

Well done Jase and thanks from all rugby fans for sticking with the Lions heritage and history. I wish you and the 2021 team every success.


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2018 – THG won The Queen’s Award for Enterprise


A NATION CHALLENGED: THE PORTRAITS Closing a Scrapbook Full of Life and Sorrow

It began as an imperfect answer to a journalistic problem, the absence of a definitive list of the dead in the days after the World Trade Center was attacked. But it evolved improbably in the weeks and months after Sept. 11 into a sort of national shrine.

Three days after the attacks, reporters at The New York Times, armed with stacks of the homemade missing-persons fliers that were papering the city, began dialing the numbers on the fliers, interviewing friends and relatives of the missing and writing brief portraits, or sketches, of their lives.

In the weeks that followed, amid nonstop news coverage of the disaster and the war, reading ''Portraits of Grief'' became a ritual for people nationwide. In hundreds of e-mail messages and letters to The Times, readers said they read them religiously, rarely missing a day. For some, it was a way of paying homage. Others said it was a means of connecting, a source of consolation.

''One felt, looking at those pages every day, that real lives were jumping out at you,'' Paul Auster, the novelist, said in an interview about the profiles, which conclude today as a daily feature in The Times. ''We weren't mourning an anonymous mass of people, we were mourning thousands of individuals. And the more we knew about them, the more we could wrestle with our own grief.''

There was Myrna Yaskulka, the Staten Island grandmother remembered for her pink rhinestone-studded sunglasses, metallic gold raincoat and leopard-skin pants Kevin Dowdell, the oft-decorated firefighter who sanded floors on his days off to support his family Diane Urban, who spoke her mind so often that one relative suggested at her memorial service that everyone get T-shirts saying 'ɽiane Urban Told Me Off.''

There was Nancy Morgenstern, the bicycle racer and Orthodox Jew, who, faced with the seemingly conflicting requirements of her two passions, embraced both of them completely rather than take the easy way out and give one up. She so impressed a client with her ability as a travel agent that he hired her as his administrative assistant at Cantor Fitzgerald.

There were the traders, firefighters, window washers, chefs and managing directors the new parents, pairs of siblings, fathers of 10 the avid shoppers, rugby team captains, lovers, fanatical golfers, part-time bouncers and the rare few whose mothers lovingly conceded that they were definitely not saints.

Over time, the profiles helped shed light on the striking number of men and of young people among those who died, the wide geographical range of the neighborhoods affected, and the degree to which the victims made up a telling cross section of the New York region.

It became hard not to notice, too, how many were Irish- and Italian-Americans, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, whom Roman Catholic schools and Wall Street had propelled out of working-class neighborhoods into firms like Cantor Fitzgerald and suburban towns like Basking Ridge, N.J.

Through today's issue, The Times has published more than 1,800 sketches. The official count of those dead and missing in the trade center attacks stands at 2,937. Reporters have contacted, or tried to contact, relatives or friends of nearly every victim the paper was able to locate. Some have declined to give interviews others said they were not ready to talk. (As more names become known and more families agree to interviews, the editors intend to publish additional profile pages from time to time.)

The portraits were never meant to be obituaries in any traditional sense. They were brief, informal and impressionistic, often centered on a single story or idiosyncratic detail. They were not intended to recount a person's résumé, but rather to give a snapshot of each victim's personality, of a life lived. And they were democratic executive vice presidents and battalion chiefs appeared alongside food handlers and janitors. Each profile was roughly 200 words.

''The peculiar genius of it was to put a human face on numbers that are unimaginable to most of us,'' said Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia and director of the New-York Historical Society. He said the society hoped to borrow from the concept in developing a major exhibition on the disaster.

'ɺs you read those individual portraits about love affairs or kissing children goodbye or coaching soccer and buying a dream home,'' he said, ''it's so obvious that every one of them was a person who deserved to live a full and successful and happy life. You see what was lost.''

Television and radio stations around the world broadcast reports on the project. A psychologist at the University of Michigan assigned the profiles as required reading for students and therapy groups. Readers approached The Times to offer the families everything from college scholarships to $300,000 in cash.

One reader, a lawyer in Manhattan, called reading the profiles ''my act of Kaddish.'' Some said they found the stories uplifting, a guide to how to live a better life. Susan Sontag, the writer, said in an e-mail message, ''I read the 'Portraits of Grief,' every last word, every single day. I was tremendously moved. I had tears in my eyes every morning.''

Not everyone was happy. A small number of family members complained, saying certain profiles had failed to capture the people they knew.

In Portland, editors of The Oregonian obtained the profiles from The Times and began printing them on Page A2 in mid-September. In October, the paper published a column in which its ombudsman, Dan Hortsch, raised the question of when The Oregonian should stop. When he checked his voice mail that afternoon, he found 68 messages. Hundreds followed. The gist, he said, was: Don't stop.


Living in the Moment

When I ask Farrell to recall his feelings about the conclusion of the 2019 World Cup &ndash from the elation of defeating New Zealand in the semi-final to the crushing disappointment of defeat at the hands of South Africa in the final &ndash he tells me, &ldquoIt&rsquos hard to go back that far and remember how you feel. It&rsquos a long time ago now, and there&rsquos a lot that&rsquos happened since then.&rdquo

A lot has indeed happened since then. COVID-19 has ripped through rugby, as with every sport (we are speaking via Zoom because Farrell is at home after a positive diagnosis). On the plus side, he has led England to a successful Six Nations title, albeit across the most disjointed set of fixtures in the competition&rsquos history. Less happily, he has been sent off for the first time in his career, while his club, Saracens, have been hauled over the coals for their breaches of the salary cap and been demoted to the Championship, English rugby&rsquos second division. England have now tentatively begun the defence of their Six Nations title, but there is no real optimism that the tournament will run smoothly.

&ldquoObviously, at the time, it was the biggest thing you&rsquod ever been involved with,&rdquo he says of that World Cup defeat, slipping into the second person. &ldquoIt probably was the biggest one-off game well, it definitely was. But that&rsquos what it feels like every week. There&rsquos no bigger game than what comes next. Yes, it did feel massive, and it was massively disappointing.

But the good thing about sport &ndash and not just sport but life &ndash is that it goes on. There&rsquos always new stuff to get your teeth into in the not-too-distant future.&rdquo

Perhaps one of the defining images of that tournament was Farrell facing up to the haka ahead of the semi-final against the All Blacks. The wicked smile playing across his lips and his thick eyebrows made him look like a cross between the Devil and his musical hero, Noel Gallagher. What was he thinking then?

&ldquoI was just thinking, &lsquoHow good is this?&rsquo To be involved in this, a World Cup semi-final, waiting to play one of the best teams of all time. It was exciting. There was no place you would rather be. That&rsquos all it was. Excitement. Can&rsquot wait.&rdquo

&ldquoYou have to be instinctive. You need to respond in the moment&rdquo

Some saw a darker intent as he got his game face on against the All Blacks &ndash a desire to rile the opposition, indicative of a man whose game is based around gaining an advantage at the blurred lines of legality on a rugby pitch. Johnny Sexton, Ireland&rsquos storied outside half and a friend of Farrell, has called him &ldquospiky &ndash like myself&rdquo. Wales&rsquos Dan Biggar calls him &ldquonarky&rdquo. How would he describe his playing style?

&ldquoCompetitive,&rdquo he says with a smile, after some deliberation. &ldquoYou try to better yourself, to be ready for anything. But overall, I&rsquod say competitive. It&rsquos been what I&rsquove enjoyed since I was a kid. Competing. That could be in anything, but obviously it comes out when I&rsquom playing, as well as in day-to-day stuff.

I guess that would be it. Learning to grow all the time and be able to use that in the best way possible.&rdquo

Operating at the margins as he does, with the possibility of infringement ever present, is it possible to be instinctive in how he plays? &ldquoOf course you can be instinctive,&rdquo he replies forcefully. &ldquoYou have to be instinctive. Everyone will make mistakes, the same as I do with a bad pass, or when I drop the ball. But you don&rsquot want to be second-guessing yourself when you&rsquore on the field.

You want to be instant with your decision-making. You don&rsquot always have time to think, to take stock.&ldquoWhen you talk about the best moments people have been involved in,&rdquo he continues, &ldquoit just happens. It just happens! That&rsquos instinct. That&rsquos allowing yourself to be free to let that happen.

If you try to overthink, or if you question things, you&rsquore never going to get into that place where you can respond in the moment. I guess that&rsquos what everyone&rsquos after &ndash to be in that state where things fall into place. You&rsquove got to let go a little to be like that. If you could just summon that up every time you played, you&rsquod be unstoppable. If you knew how to be in it all the time, it would be brilliant. There are millions of different decisions to be made, and you can&rsquot make the right one every time. But the ability to give all of yourself to it and let yourself go into it is just massive.&rdquo

He pauses after this. He doesn&rsquot like to let himself go in an interview. But though he hides it well and would certainly try to deny it, it&rsquos clear there is poetry in the soul of Owen Farrell*.

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French Rugby Rules Europe

Biarritz's Romain Terrain passes the ball during a French Top 14 rugby union match against Montpellier last month.

Not so long ago, European rugby union was dominated by English teams whose gameplans involved kicking for field position and tackling anything that moved. But not anymore.

In today's club game, the best teams have three things in common: star-studded rosters, a swarming defense, and they all play in France.

Between them, French clubs provided four of the eight quarterfinalists in the Heineken Cup last season—a record—as Toulouse won its fourth title. Nobody else has more than two.

It's a period of unprecedented dominance, but will it last? The French say the commercial clout of their clubs and the passion for the game will sustain it. But spiralling salaries and a new homegrown player quota instituted by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, which governs the professional game, could pull the country's soaring teams back down to earth.


News Continued

Sierra Entertainment’s original creators might be making something new

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Red army: Lions supporters on the 2009 tour to South Africa (Getty Images)

These are the man-management skills that have propelled him into the pantheon. European and domestic glory with Wasps, Grand Slams with Wales, back-to-back Lions tours, winning one and drawing the other. And next summer it goes full circle when Gatland returns to the place where his days as a touring coach started.

He had two cracks at the Boks in their own backyard when he was in charge of Ireland and another four on the road when he was coaching Wales. The closest he got to victory – and it was painfully close – was 2014 when the Welsh lost two men to the sin-bin, gave up a 30-17 lead and got done 31-30.

“We won it twice and lost it twice.”

Gatland says he hasn’t, and won’t, engage in the game of picking his Lions squad. “I’m too afraid to do it. It’ll only change a million times between now and then. Players will come out of nowhere, other players will really ramp it up because it’s a Lions year, there’ll be injuries.

“I have no idea who the captain will be either. It’s about picking the squad and then saying who do we think will be captain material. Ideally, it’s somebody who has come from a team that’s been pretty successful. The next question is if we were picking the Test team now, is there a good chance this person would make that Test team?”

Who, at this remove, are the nailed-on Test players, injury and form permitting? Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry? Itoje is the name that keeps cropping up.

“You look at that and go, well, there are some pretty good second-rows around and he’s not bad. You have Courtney Lawes and George Kruis. How’s Alun Wyn Jones going at that time? There’s James Ryan. There’s no doubt about Itoje’s quality. He’s an intelligent player and an intelligent man and has been incredibly successful in his career. He would definitely be in contention as one of the possibilities as captain.”

Front-runner: Maro Itoje makes a break for England (Getty Images)

The coronavirus has changed a few things around announcements, he says. “The plan was to start talking to back-room coaching staff during the November window and then make an announcement in early December. We’ll see how that goes now. I need to go around the CEOs of the national teams and ask them if they’d prefer that we didn’t approach a coach in their set-up.

“There were one or two last time in New Zealand that we made inquiries about and who subsequently weren’t available. I have to make sure we don’t end up in that situation again. Gregor (Townsend) was one of them. He’d have loved the opportunity to go. Personally, I think it would have been great for him, but he was just appointed as Scotland coach and it was a little contentious because he was replacing Vern Cotter, who had done well.

“Maybe Gregor reassessed the situation and thought it better that he went on tour with Scotland. I understand that. I don’t want to be in that situation again where we’ve had a conversation and somebody is initially keen and then it doesn’t happen.”

He’ll take a smaller squad this time around. He reckons 36 or 37 players should be enough and controversy is guaranteed. He’s had his share of it. The Brian O’Driscoll affair in 2013 was followed by uproar and ludicrous allegations of anti-Scottishness in 2017 when he picked just two Scots.

“Look, I’m a great believer that the Lions have to represent four nations. I kept going back to their performance at Twickenham that season. I’m not saying they needed to win that game but they needed to be a lot closer than a 50-pointer. That stuck in my mind.

“I remember selecting the team and we only had a couple of Scottish players – Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour – and the other coaches came to me and said, ‘Can we revisit the wing selection?’ and I said, ‘No, we can’t, we’ve only got two Scots and we cannot go down to one. We’re going to get absolutely crucified as it is’. That wasn’t easy but you have to do what you think is right.”

Top two: Ian McGeechan and Warren Gatland worked together on the 2009 Lions tour (Getty Images)

He was Ian McGeechan’s assistant in 2009 (only the second time in his career he’s been a number two) and head coach in 2013 and 2017. Why go again given the New Zealand tour was so hard?

“The last one was disappointing. I had this romantic view of the Lions, coached by a New Zealander, going back to New Zealand. Let’s celebrate that. And it was celebrated by most people, to be fair, but sections of the New Zealand media were incredibly hostile and personal about me. That took me by surprise.

“What was written by that element of the press wasn’t what we experienced in New Zealand. The hospitality was incredible, the atmosphere was electric. I had a huge amount of Kiwis getting in touch with me afterwards to say they were embarrassed by how I was treated by elements of the New Zealand media.

“But you reflect over time, don’t you? You come back to Wales, do pretty well, the negatives diminish and you get the buzz for it again. I wouldn’t have forgiven myself had I turned it down. I feel hugely privileged to have the opportunity again. The Lions concept is special and it’s a massive fight to preserve it.”

Everybody says they love the Lions but not everybody is of a mind to give them the best chance to succeed. We’re talking about the vexed problem of preparation time now.

“We all love the Lions but there’s an element in the UK, with certain club owners and PRL (Premiership Rugby), that I find strange. There’s surely nothing better than a player from your club being selected for the Lions. They go away, they win a series, they return as superstars that all the young fans will look up to. Isn’t that what it’s all about? You create heroes for the next generation.

“What Pro14 have done next season is brilliant. They’ve moved their final to give us two weeks’ preparation. So thanks so much to Pro14 and the Celtic nations for doing that. It’s a generous thing to do.

“I mean, 2017 was incredibly tough. Two finals on the Saturday, assemble on the Sunday, fly to New Zealand on the Monday, arrive Wednesday and play Saturday. It makes it really difficult.

“I remember the 2001 and 2005 tours, people were talking whether this was the end of the Lions. My first involvement, with Geech, was about putting respect back in the jersey and we’ve done it, but it’s so easy to lose it again.”

Next year a Lions squad will be picked. Even the thought of the chosen ones facing the Boks quickens the pulse. “It’s just very, very special,” says Gatland, with a smile of anticipation, a knowing look from a man who’s been there, done it and is thrilled by the chance of doing it again.

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