How to win the Rugby World Cup 


As the countdown to England 2015 begins, four of rugby’s top stars reveal what it will take to bring the trophy back home

With 20 teams from across the globe battling for supremacy over six weeks of gruelling scrums, crunching tackles and heart-stopping penalty kicks, the Rugby World Cup is one of the most intense and bruising competitions on the international sporting calendar. Since its inception in 1987, the tournament has been almost exclusively dominated by sides from the Southern Hemisphere; aside from England’s emphatic win in 2003, the Webb Ellis trophy has been passed around between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. This year, though, the tide could turn as the competition takes place on British turf. Since the 2011 World Cup, teams from the home nations have been leading the fight back, with England, Wales and Ireland all chalking up strong wins against their Southern counterparts. But it’ll take every ounce of our heroes’ strength, skill and determination if the North is to prevail once again. Here, four of rugby’s brightest talents – Irish winger Simon Zebo, English fly-half Owen Farrell, and Welsh backs George North and Jamie Roberts – share their unique insights on preparing for the biggest test of your life.

© YouTube/Gilbert Rugby


The home squads are known for their innovative training camps, and this year they’re exploring new territory. Take Wales – as well as eight days of cold conditioning at bootcamps in Spala, Poland, pre-tournament prep included a fortnight of intensive training in the Swiss Alps and nine brutal days at the world renowned Aspire Academy For Sports Excellence in Doha, Qatar. A regular haunt of Pep Guardiola’s multi-championship winning FC Bayern Munich, the Doha facility pushed the Welsh to their limits with high-altitude training in hypoxic chambers (which replicate conditions at 4,500m above sea level) and on-field tactics in temperatures above 40°C. The end result? Bodies used to functioning in extreme conditions, giving them the edge in a physically demanding competition. “We’ve done the cryotherapy for a few campaigns now, so the coaches have gone, ‘What’s the opposite of cold? Piping hot!’” says North. “That’s a prime example of using a new stimulus to challenge the boys and their bodies. It’s important to switch it up. These camps are unbelievably tough and massively intense, but they really help. We’re always trying to better ourselves. I like waking up and being able to say, ‘I challenged myself yesterday. Can I do it today?’


The intense match-day atmosphere could put even the most seasoned player out of step, so staying calm and composed is key. “First and foremost, you’ve got to back yourself,” says Farrell. “You’ve got to have confidence in your ability, and with that comes calmness. If you’re not frantic, you can clearly see what’s in front of you - and unleash your strengths.“



“The fans are like the 16th player” - Simon Zebo 


Rugby is one of the world’s most punishing team contact sports, and players will inevitably pick up serious knocks along the way. But to win the tournament, short-term sacrifices have to be made. North is a prime example. Earlier this year, he picked up three concussions in a row and, following medical advice, took an extended rest period to ensure he was fighting fit for the World Cup. “It’s a brutal game,” he says. “Concussion isn’t as well understood as more obvious injuries, so a lot of it was about following the right protocols. I was advised to take some time off and I was fortunate my club and my country were able to give it to me. There was a lot of hype in the media about [the concussions] and pressure from external sources, so just taking the time to nip it in the bud was key. I’m feeling great now.”


Ask any player what the first thing is that he packs in his match-day kit bag and the answer will probably be an mp3 player. “Music plays a big role in my pre-match preparation,” says Zebo. “If I need to chill myself out before a game, I’ll listen to Andrea Bocelli; if I need to get myself fired up, I’ll listen to Kendrick Lamar. Every match is different – I just try to listen to my body and how I feel.”


George North

“We’re always trying to better ourselves” - George North 


At just 28, Jamie Roberts is already a rugby veteran. With two Lions tours and Wales’ 2011 World Cup campaign under his belt, he’s the man with the international experience, the one who the new talent will look to learn from. “I’ve gone from being one of the youngest players in the squad to one of the most senior in the blink of an eye,” he says. “But I thrive on responsibility. The more I’m given, the more empowered I feel and the better I perform. It’s not about dishing out advice to the new guys, it’s about setting examples in training and being vocal on the pitch as a motivator. Communication has always been a big part of my game – the idiot in me doesn’t wear a gum shield for that reason.” 

Jamie Roberts

“Communication is a big part of my game” - Jamie Roberts 


Given the intensive preparation schedule, rest time is a precious commodity for players. “I think it’s as important as your training time, without a doubt,” says Roberts. “Once you get into training, you’re playing rugby for 11 months, so your off-season is crucial. It’s important you get away with your friends. I’ve always had a bit of a blow-out with mates, gone and partied somewhere, forgot about training for a few weeks and really switched off. I feel I have to tick that box to restart that 11-month cycle and love rugby again. It can be quite a monotonous job – you’re in the gym doing the same things, day after day; you’re on the pitch doing the same drills… Obviously that bond and the banter you have with the players keeps you sane. But that off-season is crucial. It means you can spike again.”


One key advantage the home nations have over their Southern Hemisphere rivals is that this year the tournament is taking place in England, meaning their fans will be out in force. “Playing a big match can be daunting, but the fans help spur you on,” says Zebo. “They’re like the 16th player. They’ll make a massive difference in this tournament. It’s a short distance for them to travel, so there should be an unbelievable atmosphere. The last time the World Cup was in the Northern Hemisphere was in France in 2007 and England got to the final. If we want to be one of those teams, we have to play well from the start, and a great fanbase will help.”


“At the end of the day, it’s fun. just enjoy it” - Simon Zebo 


There’s one thing all national rugby sides can agree on: winning this World Cup will be tough. England’s 2003 victory is the only time a Northern Hemisphere team has managed it, and reigning champs New Zealand – who’ve been top of the world rankings since 2009 – won’t let it go without a fight. “The tide hasn’t turned yet,” says Roberts. “Whether there is a watershed moment this year remains to be seen. But every team is moving forward. Rugby is changing year on year and all the teams are developing bigger, faster, stronger players. You have to keep evolving. It’ll be a challenge to beat those guys, but I don’t see it as pressure – I see it as an opportunity.”

Owen Farrell

“You’ve got to have confidence in your ability” - Owen Farrell 


George North witnessed one of rugby’s biggest lows early in his career when Wales suffered a crushing semi-final defeat to France in 2011. “It was pretty crappy,” he says. “But that experience was important. You will lose some games. I hate to lose, but you have to move on – you have to analyse what went wrong and make sure you know what to do and what not to do in the next one.” Having performed a key role in the successful 2013 Lions tour, and moved away from home to play his club rugby with Northampton Saints, North has built on that experience to give him a much bigger arsenal to draw from this time around. “I’m more mature now than at the last World Cup,” he says. “All those experiences have forced me to grow up a bit quicker and adapt to the game and what it requires of me. It’s helped me to find out who I am, what skills I’ve got, and what I can do in the heat of the battle.”


The home teams’ World Cup preparation involves spending weeks together at training camps in the lead-up to the tournament. “That time together is key,” says Roberts. “Rugby’s a team sport and as much as you want to have 15 great individuals on the park who are peaking fitness-wise, you have to be ready to sacrifice yourself for the guy alongside you. That comes from being good friends with these people and wanting to go that extra yard for your teammate. It’s important that element remains. [Wales coach] Warren Gatland advocates that old-school ethos and knows these camps are a great opportunity for the players to get to know each other. In terms of performance, team bonding might even be more important than peak physical fitness.” 

“Every match is different – I just try to listen to my body and how I feel” - Simon Zebo


Losing key players to injury can be disastrous for a team’s momentum, stopping a successful campaign in its tracks. No one can predict on-field mishaps, but the right preparation can prevent niggles becoming something worse. “I train for 45 minutes to an hour every morning on injury prevention and recovery,” says Roberts, who is also a qualified doctor. “I’ve had reconstructive surgery to my ankle, wrist, shoulder and knee, and I know that if I don’t do my work with those four joints, my career will be shorter. The rehab is buying me a few more years. At 20 you don’t really appreciate the importance of stretching, but as you reach your late 20s you realise how crucial it is to keep your body in sync and train effectively. Doing my medical degree has served me well, certainly injury and training-wise – it’s given me a lot of knowledge that I can apply in the workplace.”


Amid the madness of the World Cup, it’s easy to get swept up in the hype. But remembering why you’re on the field in the first place can have a grounding effect. “At the end of the day, it’s fun!” says Zebo. “There’s no better feeling than getting the ball, making a break, scoring a try and having a positive influence on the game. My advice to anyone coming into the squad would be to just enjoy it and do what you did when you first started playing rugby. There’s no point trying to reinvent the wheel.”

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09/2015 The Red Bulletin 

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