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I remember sitting in a Paris café, on the Thursday before our quarter-final against France in 1991, after a quiet solitary walk, when the possibility that we could be out of the World Cup that Saturday evening engulfed me. I felt rising panic, fear and nausea, embarrassed and humiliated — our dream over.
It will be the mental strength of the players and coaches of this England squad and how they deal with the stress of the occasion that will determine their success or failure during this World Cup.
There is the pressure of selection, of balancing the team between defence and attack, of how to accommodate the characters, leaders, mavericks and match winners. How long and intensively do you train, what do you include in training and how much responsibility should the players have in those decisions?
Players feel the pressure of ensuring that they are not going to let their teammates down and have done everything in their power to perform for them on match day. Then there is the monotony of hotel living, closeted behind closed doors, away from friends, family and normal life.
I dealt with pressure by visualising successful plays and outcomes, from a player’s and then from a captain’s viewpoint. It was like having a DVD player in your head. I kept rerunning key moments in victories and games. I ran through all scenarios I thought I would face, using the pause button to freeze crucial moments.
I replicated this with the team, analysing the opposition. The closer we got to the game, the more positive (and real) DVD clips we watched, so that the players had a confident mindset.
My personal daily process, always after training, allowed me to defeat negative gremlins in my mind and flick the “off” switch for a few hours, confident in where I was in my preparation. Players and coaches need to get the balance right of when to flick the switch. The ability to relax usually comes with experience and this England squad has some young, if very talented, players.
Senior players and coaches must plan for the squad to relax: fun events, go-karting, golf, anything with a little competitive element that distracts from rugby thoughts.
Burnout is critical. Just as young players must learn not to “play” the game too early in their minds — and burn through their adrenaline in days before a match — they must learn to unwind during a long tournament.
We survived Paris. If things felt especially stressed before a game, I’d boil it down to basics and think, “I am not going to die tomorrow, so it’s not that bad.” This time, I spent half an hour running through how we beat the French on the last two occasions.
We fell at Twickenham in the final against Australia. It was not because of their wing David Campese’s comments about our style of play. We were dominating Australia’s forwards so well that we could have tightened our game and exerted even more pressure on them. That said, we still made enough chances to win.
This young England squad needs to deliver in the most intense environment they will have experienced. They have the players and the talent. None of us know how they will handle the pressure.
Will Carling was captain of England, 1988-1996