What goes on tour...
December 11, 2009
Rafael Ibanez: As good as a passport © Getty Images
With European rugby rolling around for the next fortnight, clubs will be refocusing their efforts and preparing for the different challenges that the Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup present.
The biggest issue is one of familiarity. Playing in the Guinness Premiership, you cross paths with your opponents at least twice a season, see coverage of games on TV, and when analysing one opponent you're exposed to footage of the other sides, which all adds up. While there may be a familiar face in your European Pool, chances are you'll have at least two teams you don't have intimate knowledge of.
At this particular stage in both competitions teams are also presented with the uncommon situation of facing off for two consecutive weeks, which only serves to intensify the fixtures even more. With only a week to prepare for the games, analysis becomes even more important, both as a team and as individuals. Knowing how a team likes to play is the biggest issue, and with so many possibilities, it's important to pick up on the few major points that the notoriously short attention span of a rugby player can cope with.
What particular pattern their play follows, what their favoured strike moves are, and how they defend, are all important pieces of information that you can't afford spend the first half figuring out. Of course, if you're playing a French side this could all be worthless as they might just decide to do things completely different just because they can.
On an individual level, knowing how a certain player carries the ball into contact or if they have a favoured foot to step off are the little details that could turn out to be match winning. Although, knowing that someone like Henry Tuilagi at Perpignan will run hard and straight is one thing, doing something about this 125 kilo monster is another.
There are also more logistical challenges with the European competitions with most focused around the away games. These are normally great trips, with stays in hotels meaning there is no need to rush home straight after the game. This of course presents the chance for some good 'team bonding' and the following are some of my favourite away trip stories (names have been omitted to protect the guilty!).
My first Heineken Cup trip was to Calvisano as a Wasps academy player and while my first appearance in the competition, the resounding victory or the great night out would all be good reasons to remember the occasion, it is arriving back to the hotel in the small hours that sticks in my mind.
James Haskell and I stumbled into the lobby to find two members of the coaching staff propping up the bar. As we wandered past trying to avoid the hazy looks of the coaches we were almost knocked over by the smell. Turned out that said coaches had managed to find a bar in town and worked through so much red wine that no taxi would dare let them in the back, so instead had hitched a ride home in the early hours in the back of a garbage truck.
Players have also suffered on these trips, with most problems centred on making the coach to the airport in the morning. On one occasion in Biarritz, despite a half hearted attempt by his roommate and several alarm calls, one player had not surfaced. In a great sign of team unity the boys unanimously decided to leave him behind and it was a full day and £350 later before he managed to arrive home.
The team manager is normally the one who has to organise the players one these trips and as a result will foot the blame for, well, everything really. Our current manager's first European away trip was to Edinburgh last season, and keen to impress, when one high profile player hadn't showed for the bus he set off into the hotel and returned 5 minutes later carrying bags with the bleary eyed player in tow. Job done.
As the bus made its way to the airport it was a full 15 minutes into the journey before we realised he'd actually completely forgotten about three other players who were still tucked up in bed. Start as you mean to go on.
My final story is a personal one. In 2007, having recently moved into a new flat and with a trip to France the following day, I was packing my bags and failed to find my passport. In a panic I tore the flat apart and on finding nothing rang the club to notify them and ask for some advice.
The advice amounted to get it sorted or else. In a last, desperate attempt I drove home to my parents' house that night, tore their place apart looking for it, found nothing again, and drove back to London. With 3 hours sleep and no still passport I turned up for the team run, and despite nearly falling asleep at the back of a lineout, received no sympathy and was shoved on the coach to the airport.
En route to Stansted, we were notified that passport control had agreed to let me out of the country, but there were no guarantees their French counterparts would let me in. This actually turned out to be a formality, as teammate Raphael Ibanez simply walked me up to the booth, and exchanged my entry into the country for an autograph for the border guard's daughter. So, my travel advice to you all is if you forget your passport, take a legendary French rugby captain with you instead.
Hopefully the next two weeks will throw up some memorable rugby matches, as well as some good stories.
Wasps & England flanker Tom Rees writes a fortnightly column for ESPNscrum