Chris Ash­ton

How my team-mates will spend this day of des­tiny

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Front Page -

The mood in the Eng­land camp would have re­ally changed af­ter the cap­tain’s run at Twick­en­ham yesterday. Chris Rob­shaw would have taken that ses­sion, with the coaches tak­ing a back seat. Chris sets up dif­fer­ent match sit­u­a­tions – line-out here, scrum there. A good cap­tain’s run sets the tone.

Af­ter­wards, at Pen­ny­hill Park, fam­ily and friends are al­lowed to come down. Play­ers have the af­ter­noon off and some, such as Owen Far­rell, will go to the ho­tel.

The great thing about the eve of a Test is that you are al­lowed sweets and dessert for the first time in the week. Ba­si­cally, any­thing you eat will be burnt off the next day. Court­ney Lawes is one who likes to take full ad­van­tage of this by load­ing up on pop­corn and pick and mix at the cin­ema. I do not know how he eats it all but it does not show on him. At din­ner on the eve of a match we are also al­lowed pud­ding – ap­ple pie and cream is nor­mally favourite.

The squad gather for a talk about 6pm. They are pre­sented with their match shirts and the coaches and Chris will ad­dress them. In the past, we have had per­son­al­i­ties from other sports give us a speech.

The most in­spi­ra­tional was Jamie Pea­cock, the Leeds and Great Bri­tain rugby league player, who told us about the day he was go­ing for a trial when he had a mo­ment of doubt and got off the bus on which he was trav­el­ling. He phoned his fa­ther, who told him to get back on the bus and the rest was history. The mes­sage was: “Do not get off the bus.” It hit home with a lot of us. We never give in. We never give up.

The Eng­land play­ers will have wo­ken up this morn­ing in sep­a­rate rooms at their ho­tel in Bagshot for the first time this week. Be­fore last night, they would have been shar­ing with a team-mate but, be­fore a Test, they are given their own space. If they are any­thing like me, they would have strug­gled to sleep – I al­ways do the night be­fore a match, go­ing through dif­fer­ent game sce­nar­ios in my head.

If any of the play­ers had wanted to re­view video footage of their op­po­site num­bers, they could have done so on their lap­tops.

Nor­mally with Eng­land, when you are shar­ing a room, you head to break­fast at the same time, about 8am, be­fore train­ing ses­sions. But match day is dif­fer­ent. The play­ers tend to have break­fast later, as it is such a long day. They will wan­der down in ones and twos. There is less ban­ter as each player is al­ready in his own bub­ble.

Ev­ery­one is in that zone. The key is not to let your emo­tions over­come you dur­ing the day. It is a long day. As it is an evening kick-off, the play­ers will have an early lunch be­fore go­ing for a walk through at the in­door fa­cil­ity. The for­wards and backs will split into two units and go through their work. This is the mo­ment when the team lead­ers make them­selves heard, the likes of Ge­orge Ford, Mike Brown and Brad Bar­ritt, who runs the de­fence.

It is sur­pris­ing how many balls go down at this ses­sion, but it is about get­ting ten­sion out of the way and warm­ing up slowly.

Then it is back to your room to do a fi­nal check on your kit. I al­ways keep a new pair

The great thing about the eve of a Test is that you are al­lowed sweets and dessert for the first time in the week

of boots for each match. Most of the backs do. Some of the boys will give them a run out dur­ing the cap­tain’s run the day be­fore to break them in, but I al­ways like to keep them new for the match.

It is dif­fer­ent with the for­wards. Some have started wear­ing white boots, but I love the fact that Dan Cole and Tom Youngs will still have mud on their boots be­fore kick-off. Their boots have such long studs I do not know how they run in them, and in the chang­ing room they will be bang­ing them to­gether to knock off the mud.

The play­ers will eat again around 5pm but by this stage you are sick of eat­ing. You are only do­ing it to fill in time and get some car­bo­hy­drates in. It is nor­mally pretty bland food, like spaghetti bolog­nese. Some of the boys hardly eat any­thing, whereas the likes of Tom Wood will eat a lot. By that stage, it does not re­ally mat­ter what it is be­cause we have eaten so well dur­ing the week.

Be­fore the play­ers head to the ground, there will be another short team meet­ing, with Andy Far­rell and Graham Rown­tree talk­ing about what to ex­pect from the op­po­si­tion. Stu­art Lan­caster will also say a few words, but by then he has handed most of the re­spon­si­bil­ity over to the play­ers. The coaches’ job is done.

The coach jour­ney from the ho­tel to Twick­en­ham is a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence. The ho­tel staff nor­mally clap the team on to the coach and the po­lice out­rid­ers clear the traf­fic. Most of the play­ers will be to­tally in the zone, wear­ing head­phones and lis­ten­ing to mu­sic. They will all sit on their own if pos­si­ble and, if not, each player will be look­ing in the other di­rec­tion.

It is al­ways up­lift­ing to see the crowds stand­ing out­side the pubs near the ground cheer as you ar­rive. Out­side the sta­dium gate, there is an el­derly lady who gives a rose and a hand­writ­ten mes­sage to the cap­tain. Chris will leave the mes­sage for the team to read in the chang­ing room – it nor­mally wishes you good luck and tells you to win!

Ev­ery­one has their own rou­tine in the chang­ing room. The mu­sic is nor­mally on loud and there is an up­beat vibe. Ge­orge, Owen and the scrum-halves will get straight into their kit and go out to do kick­ing. The hook­ers, too, like to get out there to do some throws.

Some play­ers will see the physio be­fore they get strapped up and put their kit on. Then it is time for the warm-up, which will be taken by Andy Far­rell and Rown­tree, as well as the con­di­tion­ers. It is short but in­tense. The play­ers want to warm up, run some moves, throw some line-outs and do some hits. Once they have re­turned to the chang­ing room, Chris will talk to the team. He is mea­sured, but by this stage all the play­ers are up for it. The days of los­ing con­trol of your emo­tions be­fore kick-off have long passed. It is too pro­fes­sional for that.

The mo­ment that stays with me is when we get the knock to leave the chang­ing room. By this stage, the bench play­ers and coaches are lined up out­side to ap­plaud us out. It is one of those times when all the hard work, all the train­ing and com­mit­ment, leads you to a mo­ment of sheer ela­tion. I have never found any­thing else that repli­cates it. You are rep­re­sent­ing Eng­land and about to hear the roar of the Twick­en­ham crowd. Noth­ing beats it.

Tonight, it will be ex­tra spe­cial for the boys. It does not get much big­ger than rep­re­sent­ing Eng­land at a home World Cup. I wish I was there tonight, but I will be with the boys all the way. Never get off the bus.

All smiles: Ben Youngs, who will win his 50th cap tonight, leads the squad out for yesterday’s cap­tain’s run and (be­low) the ever-hun­gry Court­ney Lawes

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