Sexy defending: Inside a Gustard training session
When England coach takes a session with Maidenhead I can see how the magic works
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