A crisp Autumnal morning in South-West London saw a quartet of All Blacks showing the ropes to a group of eager, but limited journalists
The genteel surroundings of the Lensbury Club on the bank of the River Thames was the location for a training session with a difference. Hosted by four All Blacks; World Cup winner Beauden Barrett, blindside Vaea Fifita, 39-cap scrum half TJ Perenara and Crusaders utility back David Havili, the task was simple, to improve the skills of a group of journalists whose best years were largely behind them.
The morning was reminiscent of the Seventies game show, the Generation Game, where experts in their field demonstrate a skill before members of the public make a hash of replicating it to laughter from the gallery.
We started off with the basics; kicking, passing and catching.
Rugby is supposed to be a simple game, so Perenara started by getting the assorted melee to start rifling passes into a round red hoop hanging off the left upright from 15m. “Try and leave your hands pointing in the same direction you want the ball to go”, he says, as a series of balls fizz wildly off-target. “That’s great guys. You’re doing well.” Perenara proffers, sympathetically.
Next up, with skills coach Neil Sweeney chipping in, it’s kicking and catching practice. In pairs, we’re asked to kick to our partner about 15m away. We’re directed to kick the ball on a flat-trajectory. It’s looks like a toned-down version of Barrett’s now trademark kick-pass that has set up countless All Blacks tries, including Jordie Barrett’s slapdown for Ngani Laumape’s try in the Third Test. Watching intently, stroking his chin, is Havili. “Try and kick through the point of the ball and make sure your toes are pointing in the direction you want the ball to go,” he adds helpfully.
With our confidence buoyed and sun breaking through the early morning mist, we’re asked to change tack and loft the ball skywards with our partner catching the ball. After a few static takes, Sweeney asks us to push off our leading foot and take to the air, in the same way you see full-backs like Leigh Halfpenny and Mike Brown effortlessly doing in front of 70,000 fans.
After taking a few balls cleanly, emboldened, I asked my fellow journalist to stick it up into the skies. Bad move. As the ball moves in the air and I shuffle my leaden feet toward the ball as it hurtles downwards. I manage to catch the ball slightly off balance and roll backwards in a less-than-gallant man. “Just like Liam Williams,” Barrett chuckles, picking up my Welsh accent, as I attempt to regain my composure. “What I always tell people is to tuck their elbows in so if the ball goes through the outstretched hands, the ball won’t go straight through the gap.” Point taken.
The final kicking exercise was about precision. From 35m out, with little wind, Sweeney asks us to kick for the corner. “Imagine it’s the last play of the game, lactic acid is building up in your legs and you’re six points down. You need to set up an attacking lineout for one final shot at victory.”
Imagining myself drilling the ball to within a metre, much like Henry Slade in the Premiership semi-final against Saracens, my compass is slightly skewed as I pull a kick to 10m out, and send a spiral kick a metre the wrong side of the corner flag. He who dares…loses, in my case.
With the basics covered, the next skill was more complicated; being lifted at the lineout. Stepping up to add his penneth was 6ft 5in behemoth Fifita, who had announced himself on the Test stage with a frightening display of power running as he skittled would-be Pumas defenders in the Rugby Championship. In heavy Tongan accent, he explains how you can reach heights of 12 feet with the correct lift. Demonstrating how he gets in the air, he adds, “You have to get a spring in your step and make sure your lifters grab you by the thighs, not your shorts. Make sure you hold onto your jumpers.”
As we were thrown up into the air – a slightly disconcerting feeling – Havili threw balls up to us to take ‘off the top’ as we pop the ball to an awaiting scrum-half and descend less than balletically.
Last up was practicing what elite hookers refine day-in, day-out; the lineout throw. Sweeney said the key was to get a spring in your throwing motion and leave your hands pointing upwards so you got a upwards trajectory and spin. With a knackered right shoulder, I found it far trickier than it looks on TV. With Dylan Hartley and Jamie George both around the 95 per cent accuracy mark, you soon realize the difference between Test stars and mere mortals.
With our heads crammed full of useful tips, it was time to put them to practice with a final blast of touch rugby, while the All Blacks ‘coaches’ watched on. As we attempted some flicks, feints and offloads with moderate success, Barrett and Perenara, ambled over at the break to give some advice. “You’re doing too much running, you need to get some width to your play. Let the ball do the work. Play smarter.” Wise words indeed, as we finished the morning looking like something resembling a rugby team.
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While the brain told us we still had our mojo, our aching bodies told us to leave it to the professionals. With France, Scotland and Wales to navigate over the coming weeks, it was been a privilege to learn from the world’s number one side but we’ll be watching safely from the sidelines from now on.
The All Blacks and Beauden Barrett are ambassadors of Tudor, the luxury Swiss watch makers. Visit tudorwatch.com