We take a look at the delicate job of addressing your team-mates before a big match
Inside The Team Talk
YOU HAVE likely seen the clip. Ireland legend Paul O’Connell, in full flow, shouting about “manic aggression” in the changing room, all fire, brimstone and bane. It’s an artefact of a time when one of the country’s great modern captains electrified his side. And it’s one the man himself has paused to consider.
In his 2016 autobiography, The Battle, O’Connell wrote of his relationship with the much-romantacised speech: “I know a lot of people’s impressions of my character came from what they saw of me in the dressing room at Croke Park in 2007, just before we played France in the Six Nations – the clip from the documentary where I was going on about ‘manic aggression’, about putting `the fear of God’ into someone. It was a good documentary, and people loved it, but it bugged me that I was never asked about the use of that clip, because it’s not something I would have agreed to.
“It’s just too intimate for people to be sitting down with a cup of tea and a biscuit watching it. It shouldn’t be for that kind of consumption.
“That was me for half an hour before a rugby match, nearly ten years ago. It’s very different to how I was – and how we all were – in my later years with Ireland, but it’s probably what some people thought I was like all the time.”
What O’Connell thuds into here is not just the idea that characters change but that there is not one universal ‘best’ way to talk to your team before kick-off.
In amateur grounds around the game, we have heard F-bombs exploding overhead. We have been preached to of the importance of laying down a marker, making that first hit, silencing the crowd and/or keeping that scoreboard ticking over (if you have one). We’ve even heard a few rip-offs of sermons from famous movie scenes. But then there are other times, when team talks go in a completely different direction, when jokes crack us up and break the tension apart, or when the quiet, detailed lines have the most impact on us. There’s more than one way to skin a chat.
“It’s on a massive continuum and with every player and every team, there’s so much variation,” says sport psychologist David Galbraith, who has worked with the Chiefs and Highlanders in Super Rugby, the Japanese national team and New Zealand Sevens through Olympics.
“Yet there are also some similarities. I’ve been very lucky to be involved in high-level rugby for a long time and it’s something I’ve been able to be part of with some amazing coaches, over time. That space just before kick-off isn’t a standalone, discreet moment, yet everyone has a different way of dealing with it. In short, the process that occurs at the kick-off is individual for each person but the work that’s going on underneath that – across the week to prepare for the Test or for the final or for the game, whatever the moment – that’s the bit that matters.”
There are several layers to it, Galbraith adds, and energies can change. Take the instance of a terrible week’s prep leading up to a game, but there can be a galvanising moment (he cites the example of a player’s mum passing away) that unites a team. But most consistent sides have been through this all before, together, and everyone is invested.
On the layers, Galbraith adds: “The greater the depth of care that the players have for each other – genuine care in the team – then that last three minutes in huddle, that symbolism, is a reflection of actually what’s there or what isn’t there. And so if you’ve got, let’s just call it a family, if you have got that environment, then that last hug is very powerful.
Related: The role of the team joker in rugby
“Then if you’ve got a week of clarity on people’s responsibilities and all of that stuff’s been dialled in, well, then you’ve got another layer. So you work during the week, across the leaders, little groups, the units, you know, and then through the team, then people come into that last phase pretty confident and certain.
“Then if you’ve got a great coach that is like a surrogate (parent), and you’ve been building some meaning across the week, and that meaning is funnelled into those last few words, that adds another dimension to it all as well.”
According to Galbraith, you can build these layers subconsciously, and it can feel special. The final factor that can take things further, though, according to the psychologist, are leaders who understand all of the individuals in the group. They might know which players need an arm around them in the warm-up, who needs a boot up the backside, who benefits from a joke to disarm them, and who just needs raw tactical information.
For Stuart McInally, who captains Edinburgh and has done so with Scotland, there is a lot of noise to cut through. As he tells Rugby World of the team talk: “I feel like it’s not my responsibility to psych anyone up. I feel like the days of the captain giving big motivational speeches before a game are over, especially in club rugby like I play with Edinburgh. It could get a bit repetitive and the players nowadays, at least I feel, are so self-motivated.
“I feel my role is less about trying to psych up players and rather it is to provide a little bit of clarity and confidence. The way I like to say it is to remind the boys how we’re going to win. I want to remind boys about our game plan. How we want to start in the game. We may be playing against a team that brings a lot of line speed for example, so I might say, ‘Let’s remember how we’re going to win the attack’, or ‘We’re gonna need to hold our depth because these guys come hard’.
“I find that helps guys be at ease when maybe boys are a bit nervous or they’re really focused on trying to psych themselves up. That clarity gives you something to focus on.”
McInally admits this reflects his personality too and he splits a lot of the talking with Grant Gilchrist. What Galbraith says about little words with other players can happen, and the hooker feels he’s learnt who needs to be “buttered up” in the changing room before the warm-up. But he also recognises that captains who are new to the title can try to do far too much. He certainly did, he says. That could be trying to provide tactical clarity, and checking others did their homework, and talking during and after every session, and trying to psych everyone up, and dragging pals through the warm-up… And so on. The best captains, says McInally, learn to share the load. It’s why, he suggests, we are seeing more and more co-captains today.
For some, though, the collective does the heavy-lifting as one entity. According to Eoin McKeon, who was part of Connacht’s slick, title-winning side of 2016, three years of system work and behind-the-scenes tweaks led to a special day at Murrayfield, when they defeated Leinster 20-10 to lift the Pro12 trophy.
And to play in that system designed by Pat Lam, every player needed to know their individual role inside out. So doing well at the weekend meant perfecting the process. He recalls winning games and it feeling like a loss because they were sloppy. As a unit, he says, it was about removing emotion.
“It was funny,” McKeon adds. “I remember when we rolled up on the bus to Murrayfield that year. There were thousands of fans all along the stairs, singing The Fields of Athenry. I was emotional but it was more that I was buzzing. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t feeling anxious.
“I don’t remember in the circle if we even referenced the crowd, but (John Muldoon, the captain) was like ‘Look lads, this is what we play for. We know we deserve to be here. We know we’re the best team…’ And then it was back to process. Let’s keep cool heads, do our jobs and it was like nothing really changed.”
For some, process above all else has a finite shelf life. But get it right and you can build what you want around it. And if everyone buys in, that will surely be something to talk about.
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