Sexy de­fend­ing: In­side a Gus­tard train­ing ses­sion

When Eng­land coach takes a ses­sion with Maiden­head I can see how the magic works

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - WILL GREEN­WOOD

For Paul Gus­tard, Eng­land’s de­fence coach, his day job is not just about teach­ing play­ers the art of tack­ling and snuff­ing out at­tacks. In­stead, it is about breath­ing “soul” into the most in­tense part of the mod­ern game.

His aim is sim­ple: to make de­fence fun and to let play­ers en­joy the 50 per cent of the game they spend with­out the ball. This may seem a con­tra­dic­tion, es­pe­cially when you have wit­nessed the Sara­cens wolf-pack press that snarled its way to the top of the English and Euro­pean leagues, and Eng­land’s now noisy and ag­gres­sive de­fen­sive pat­terns. But that is Gus­tard’s strength; he mar­ries the hard edge needed to de­fend with an evan­gel­i­cal be­lief that an im­preg­nable de­fence is just as sexy as a full-flow­ing at­tack.

Gus­tard has al­ways been self-aware. Happy to call him­self an av­er­age rugby player, who could not pass and could hardly catch, he fo­cused on what he did best. He wore his heart on his sleeve, hunted down ev­ery ball, made ev­ery tackle, and un­der­stood his role in the team.

To­day, those val­ues are still very much on show, es­pe­cially when you have the priv­i­lege of watch­ing one of his train­ing ses­sions up close, as I did re­cently at Maiden­head RFC.

I have seen Gus­tard work with the Eng­land team be­fore. He never labours points, there is clar­ity of mes­sage, and no doubt about what he wants from his boys. Ev­ery­thing is in­ter­ac­tive, sharp, high in­ten­sity. Not much room for dis­cus­sion.

Eng­land are a two-man-tackle team when they can be: one low, one on the ball, dic­tat­ing the tempo of the game. They are a hard-press­ing team, even on short sides. They have to­tal be­lief in each other to press hard, force the er­ror and keep mov­ing for­ward.

I took part in a short train­ing ses­sion dur­ing one Eng­land camp and ques­tioned this style of de­fence. I stressed that when Eng­land are short of play­ers, there is a need for a softer press from the in­side to the out, us­ing the touch­line as a friend. I added that I could beat Gus­tard’s short-side press 99 times out of a 100. It was a mis­take. Gus­tard put me straight back in my box. He re­minded me that I hadn’t beaten the de­fence dur­ing the ses­sion, that it was “f------ fact”, and I should fo­cus on re­al­ity. A timely re­minder that even if there is a smile at the start, de­fend­ers do not mess about or ac­cept any­thing other than to­tal com­mit­ment to the cause.

Ed­die Jones, the na­tional head coach, is a de­mand­ing boss. He al­ways wants im­prove­ment from his coaches and play­ers. They need to keep get­ting bet­ter.

So how much time does Gus­tard get with his Eng­land play­ers ev­ery week to pro­duce a record-break­ing de­fence? It is an av­er­age of 26 min­utes in to­tal ev­ery week. That is an episode of Easten­ders or Corona­tion Street to coach the world’s sec­ond-best team on how to counter all the other best teams in the world.

No won­der Gus­tard has lit­tle choice but to be sharp and con­cise.

That is why it was so in­ter­est­ing to see him down at Maiden­head for a 75-minute ses­sion – or nearly three weeks’ worth of Eng­land work. The last time he came was 12 months ago and the fol­low­ing Satur­day Maiden­head pro­duced the first “nil” of the sea­son – a shutout. That is the Gus­tard ef­fect. He cre­ates a de­sire of those around him to please him, to work for him, to de­liver.

Since then, his ideas have not changed that much. There is a huge amount of en­ergy and de­sire to keep im­prov­ing, mixed in with an in­cred­i­ble stub­born­ness to “dis­rupt” and to “chal­lenge”. Ask Gus­tard why he likes com­ing down to a ju­nior club and he is clear about his mo­ti­va­tions. “We all started some­where, what­ever jour­ney you are on,” he ex­plains.

“Grass-roots rugby is at the cen­tre of the com­mu­nity.” You can see he en­joys get­ting back to the fun side of the game.

Even so, in among the chat, there was some real steel when it came to train­ing. The pin­na­cle was the change in mind­set that Gus­tard brought about. One drill that Maiden­head reg­u­larly run in­volves three teams of 12 fac­ing off. One team at­tack. One team de­fend. One team rest. The gen­eral rule of thumb is that all play­ers want to be in the at­tack­ing team or rest­ing.

De­fence was the last thought on any­one’s mind. Not with Gus­tard in town. All the play­ers were queu­ing up, champ­ing at the bit, har­ing off. De­fend de­fend de­fend. Thou shalt not pass. Bod­ies, en­ergy, pride on the line.

It would be wrong, how­ever, to think that Gus­tard is cre­at­ing a team of ro­bots. When teams de­fend, there need to be things that hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally, but that does not mean they should hap­pen with­out think­ing.

The pri­mary func­tion of de­fence is to “get the ball back”, and the best way to do that is to “re­duce time and space and dic­tate at­tack­ing op­tions”. It makes for some very in­tense train­ing ses­sions and a need for play­ers who can adapt and re­act quickly dur­ing a live game.

Be­cause of this, Gus­tard does not like do­ing the same thing week in, week out. He is al­ways try­ing to be dif­fer­ent within a con­sis­tent frame­work. This way the play­ers stay fresh and charged for the chal­lenge.

The trick is to “re­peat the skill but not the drill”. And that is why a ses­sion with a ju­nior club seems such a wel­come change. “It al­lows me to trial things com­ing here; the last part of the ses­sion even the Eng­land lads haven’t done”, he ex­plains. “I want to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. I want de­fence to be fun”.

By the time he had fin­ished with Maiden­head, one thing was very clear; Gus­tard is a man who does ex­actly what he says he will.

‘Re­peat the skill, not the drill. I want to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. I want de­fend­ing to be fun’

Words of wis­dom: Paul Gus­tard is­sues ad­vice on de­fend­ing to Maiden­head RFC and, right, takes a train­ing ses­sion

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