Red Roses assistant coach Scott Bemand gives Sam Larner an insight into the Six Nations clean sweep
The Intercept: Inside England’s 2022 Grand Slam
In The Intercept, we usually dissect a great try from the previous month. In this edition, we are instead dissecting an entire championship.
We spoke to England women’s backs coach Scott Bemand about how he helped to prepare the best side in the world for the 2022 Six Nations.
As Eddie Jones is at pains to point out for the men’s team, the big goal is the Rugby World Cup. The Red Roses are building towards a showdown later this year in New Zealand and Bemand is aware of the pressure that will come from that tournament.
“We are preparing a group for going into an environment, which is going to be loud, it’s going to be raucous and where the crowd want our opposition to win,” he says.
England got some preparation for that with their trip to a febrile Stade Jean Dauger in Bayonne on Saturday. However, that was the only game where England faced stiff competition on their way to winning a Grand Slam.
Against the other nations, they won by at least 50 points. With that in mind, how do Bemand and the other coaches maintain competition and intensity?
“That is the gold really. We need to find the balance in training between pressure and confidence. Apply too much pressure and you risk knocking your team’s confidence. Not enough and they won’t be prepared for the big games.
“I think Simon Middleton (head coach) is one of the best coaches in the world for driving consistently high standards. If we put 50 points on someone, we look at the 30 points that we left out on the field. The players have got really good at casting a more critical eye over their performances without denting confidence.”
That ability to be critical, even in victory, is vital for England. In the men’s Six Nations every opposition England face, bar Italy, are within ten ranking points of England. In the women’s Six Nations only France fall within this gap. If England didn’t learn from those hefty victories then they might well find themselves unprepared for sterner challenges in New Zealand.
It is crucial, no matter your level, to apply pressure in training sessions and make them game realistic. “Ben Ryan talks about competence, confidence and pressure. So, what abilities do you have, how confident are you with that ability, and what happens when you test that under pressure?
“We work hard on the competencies and we try to build confidence in those skills with evidence and positive reinforcement, but you then need to stress test that to see where you really are.”
Not only are England the strongest team in the world currently, but they also have one of the deepest talent pools. They have two teams as Bemand puts it. That creates a positive feedback loop where players get better, competition for spots gets fiercer, and players get better again as the standard improves.
“As a squad we have improved our competencies across a big enough group and that leads to competition and when you have competition, players need to train like they mean it. When you train like you mean it, you get that improvement. As coaches, I will go on record as saying we put just as much stock in training as we do in games. It is really important that training performances are at the highest level.”
Many teams will know their starting XV early in the week and will then ask the non-selected players to take on the role of the opposition they will face that weekend. Although this is something England do, their training being as important as games philosophy limits this.
“Because we pick based on training performance as well as games, if we gave someone the weekly job of running around acting like they are Laure Sansus then you would be depriving them of opportunities. It is something we do look at but it’s just about the dose.”
Most people probably assume that each week the team will look at the opposition and then spend their time working out how to break that opposition down. There is an element of that but, as Bemand explains, England are much more concerned with their own performances than the opposition.
“As a player, I’ve been involved with Quins when they were involved in a relegation scrap and Leicester when they were doing pretty well. From that you know that the opposition has a bigger headache because they are dealing with you. If, on form, you are the better side then you know the opposition will need to throw something different at you otherwise it’s pretty likely they will lose.
“We’ve built ourselves an affordance to look more at ourselves than the opposition. We know how we want to play and what kind of team we want to be. Then we want the players to be able to deal with the uncontrollable factors: referee, weather etc.”
Bemand summarises that conflict between playing your own game and countering the opposition’s game like this: “We are after the best version of ourselves and we are after the best version of ourselves to beat World Cup contenders. We have a team who are well-rounded and smart enough to change the game plan in order to deliver that result.”
Bemand has some of the best players of any gender under his charge, but you can still learn from him regardless of the standard you coach at.
Think about coaching a child how to pass a rugby ball. You start off by teaching her the basics of hand position and following through to complete the pass. Then as she gets the hang of it you give her that positive feedback, which shows her that she is doing it right.
However, you then need to test it under pressure. Maybe challenging her to complete ten passes in a row successfully. All those basic principles are what the coaching staff of the England women do during their training sessions. Just at a much higher level.
That basic approach has led them to where they are today: the best team in the world. Of course, they really need to be lifting a trophy on 12 November this year to have that status confirmed.
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