The rapidly approaching Rugby World Cup is causing media outlets everywhere to break out in supplements and previews — I can only hope you made the effort to collect last Friday’s newspaper, which had the pick of those supplements accompanying it.
The tournament is also causing widespread rashes of cliche and recycled wisdom. The nodding acquiescence to the All Blacks for their mystic ability to win is one such bromide, usually accompanied by the story of the elderly lady in the supermarket check-out line bemoaning the New Zealand tight-head for getting his angles wrong in a scrum. Not at all hackneyed, that one.
Because of (all of) that I paid particular interest to a lengthy piece in The Guardian over the weekend about the rugby culture in New Zealand. The reporter, Andy Bull, went to schools and clubs to find out how and what exactly is done to produce players who can compete and win at elite international sport.
It was revealing, for instance, to see the emphasis placed on participation and player retention, which is a challenge across all codes everywhere. If a kids’ rugby game in New Zealand is so lopsided that one team is 30 points ahead at half-time, for instance, the coaches meet to discuss how to even up the contest, while below the top tier of senior boys school rugby every player in a squad must get to play in at least a half of every match.
There’s opposition to those measures but there’s support from parents and significantly enough, from the kids themselves. A New Zealand Rugby Union official told Bull that the measures weren’t driven by administrators or coaches, academics or professional players; it was based on research the NZRU did, namely asking people involved at all levels of the game what it meant to them. “For the coaches and the parents and the school administrators, it was about results, it was about winning, and it was about being better than everyone else,” said the official. “For the kids it was different, for them it was about the battle and about a sense of ownership. About it being ‘my space, my game, my friends, my school’.
“And most of all it was about it being enjoyable.”
There’s plenty to take away from that particular morsel, from the simple and obvious question posed — what exactly does your sport mean to you — to the application of measures designed to conform to what people want specifically from that sport. It’s too bad that those involved in the administration of sports in this country don’t take that approach and ask what it is people are getting out of their particular game — and then work on providing what those people want.
Don’t all jump up and shout at once about the advantages New Zealand rugby has — huge TV money, dominance over other sports in the country, tradition — and take on board what they’re doing to stay at the top, and in particular the things they’re doing which don’t rely on any of those advantages.
David Maraniss has a new book out. This is good news because Maraniss is a top, top reporter, as Alex Ferguson might put it, who has written superbly about sport (as Alex Ferguson mightn’t put it).
Maraniss has profiled American icons like football coach Vince Lombardi, but his new book is a particular kind of American non-fiction, belonging with The Unwinding by George Packer and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler.
Once In A Great City is Maraniss’s take on a pivotal year in Detroit, now a byword for urban apocalypse but once the home of US car manufacturing, as most readers will know, and which came came close to hosting the 1968 Olympics, which most of us never even suspected.
Weaving history, politics, sociology and economics together is a particularly American modus operandi: it’d be good to read a book which did so in an Irish context once in a while.
I didn’t follow the Serena Williams-Roberta Vinci tennis game in the US Open that closely Friday evening, though I noted the explosion on social media when the former lost. As it happened I stumbled across a fascinating tennis yarn the same day.
The fitness regimes of top individual athletes always interest me because they don’t have that team environment driving them on. The example of older and more experienced players when they enter the dressing-room isn’t available to them, nor is the collegiate one-for-all impulse. It sometimes strikes me that runners, golfers, and boxers have to be even more motivated than team sportsmen, so I was intrigued to see what it was exactly which moved Djokovic from number three in the world to number one.
Clearly to be one of the top handful of professional tennis players in the entire world a person has to be pretty fit naturally, not to mention inhumanly dedicated, but what caught my eye was the room for improvement Djokovic had even then. A fondness for pancakes was blamed for his lack of stamina when he reached the latter stages of big tournaments so his doctor introduced berries to help muscle recovery and sea algae to help his cognitive skills when fatigued.
Attention to detail, though: the doctor suggested that even drinking very cold water wasn’t helping his digestion, so Djokovic doesn’t drink water colder than room temperature any more. Marginal gains, folks . . .
Readers may recall my – ‘griping’ may be a harsh word – but less-than-sunny disposition in last week’s column ahead of a trip to Killarney for the Kerry footballer’s press event.
The problem was that it appeared the morning of said event. A member of the Kerry backroom called it a “rookie error”, particularly the laying down of a gauntlet about the food.
Correct, and refuted subsequently by events.
The Brehon Hotel laid on a terrific spread - chicken stir fry, salmon, pork, salad, mixed vegetables. I wasn’t privy to the Dublin event but on a gastrointestinal level the Kingdom almost bought my support with that creamy mash. Almost (kudos to Kerry PRO John O’Leary for juggling the demands of sundry hacks, too. Here the word ‘sundry’ means ‘perpetually dissatisfied’ ).
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