Cotter pins strategy on thinking outside the box

Brothers Ritchie, right, and Jonny Gray focus on some pad work in a crossover skills training session at the Scotland rugby squad's base in France. Picture: SNS/SRU

Brothers Ritchie, right, and Jonny Gray focus on some pad work in a crossover skills training session at the Scotland rugby squad's base in France. Picture: SNS/SRU

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TWELVE years ago, South African head coach Rudolf Straeuli thought he had come up with a wizard wheeze which would give his team an edge at the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, so he packed his players off to a team-building camp in the Limpopo bush two hours’ drive north of Pretoria.

He wanted to take the Springboks out of their comfort zone, ask questions of them which would not generally be posed in a traditional rugby 
environment, and ultimately develop an inner-steel which would prove invaluable when the going got tough on the field of play.

Full-back/stand-off Greig Tonks puts in some sprint training. Picture: SNS/SRU

Full-back/stand-off Greig Tonks puts in some sprint training. Picture: SNS/SRU

It all sounded fairly reasonable from the outsider’s perspective – but when a number of disaffected players spoke out after the Springboks lost 29-9 in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, the details of what actually happened at Kamp Staaldraad (“Camp Barbed Wire”) caused an almighty furore.

Allegations of psychological torture and physical threats were levelled against Straeuli and his right-hand man, Adriaan Heijns, who is a former special services operative from the apartheid era.

It was claimed that naked players 
were crammed into foxholes and doused repeatedly with ice-cold water while the English national anthem and New 
Zealand’s haka were played over and over again.

Another accusation was that players were forced into a freezing lake in the early hours of the morning to pump up rugby balls under water and that when some players – including team captain Corne Krige – tried to get out they were ordered back into the water at gunpoint.The players were also abandoned in the bush at night with only an egg, a chicken and a match. They were told to cook a meal, but were not allowed to eat it. When they were finally given a chance to sleep, they were woken every 15 minutes by gunfire.

“It is a quick and simple way to get guys to buy into one thing together – by having a bit of fun”

Greig Tonks

It was no great surprise that Straeuli was forced to resign soon after this 
scandal, although his miserable record as South Africa’s least successful coach, and accusations of racism within the camp, were also key contributing factors in the former Springbok back-rower’s demise.

The current Scotland squad can thank their lucky stars that the man in charge of guiding them into and through this autumn’s Rugby World Cup has a rather more sophisticated approach to toughening up his charges.

He may have brought in a French commando unit last week to lead the team on a two-hour hike from their Font Romeu training base into the Pyrenees, and he did order them to bivouac in a remote field in the middle of nowhere before rising at 6am to make their way home – but a barbecue was thrown into the mix, and there was no ritualistic humiliation of individuals… and no guns were brandished or indeed fired.

“Interesting, would probably be the right word,” said squad member Greig Tonks, when asked for his thoughts about that adventure. “It was good fun and the guys enjoyed it, but it was hard work.

“It was a tough night and not much sleep so it was certainly a bit different, but for team spirit and team bonding, I think it can be a very valuable experience,” he added.

“When you are put into difficult circumstances or strange surroundings you become good friends with the guys around you.

“It is a quick and simple way to get guys to buy into one thing together – by having a bit of fun and a laugh. The boys will get a few stories from it.”

“There are always a few new faces, guys you might not know as well as others, so you do get to know each other quickly. I think that’s pretty important as well.”

Vern Cotter was forced by circumstances to hit the ground running as Scotland coach. He first joined up with the squad just days before they left on last summer’s tour of North America, Argentina and South Africa, meaning that he was busy enough getting to know faces, let alone work on personal development. Similarly, the November Tests and Six Nations operate within tight windows, meaning that there is little opportunity to focus on anything other than getting a competitive team on the park.

So this is the first time the New Zealander has really had an opportunity to put his own stamp on the squad, and while rugby will inevitably become more and more central to what the players are doing as the main event draws closer, the focus at the moment is clearly on team building, general fitness and developing crossover skills from other sports.

He has even enlisted the help of Eric Blondeau, a hostage negotiator, to help the team learn how to make decisions in high pressure situations.

“Vern lived over here for many years and he is very experienced with pre-
season camps like these. It is not just mundane training day after day. He knows it is different and that it brings the guys together. It is an opportunity to do something a bit different. We’re lucky to have the chance to try something else,” said Tonks.

“We also had a judo session the day 
before we left. A couple of the Team GB and Scottish guys were there. They had some pretty interesting ideas. There is a lot of crossover between judo and rugby. Obviously, you can’t judo throw somebody onto their head, so it was more about getting the body physically prepared for contact.”

Tonks was listed as a full-back when the Scotland training squad was initially announced at the start of June, but he sees himself more as a stand-off these days. He hopes this versatility will work in his favour when 46 players are reduced down to just 31 ahead of the World Cup. He has also been encouraged by his registering of some impressive scores in early fitness tests.

“It is called the yo-yo test and I got quite a good score in that, which is good. I had a couple of weeks off and did a few runs, so that has obviously paid off,” said the 26-year-old.

“The way it stands at the moment, I think they want me to be able to cover both fly-half and full-back, and I’m quite comfortable doing that. Going forward, I want to be playing fly-half but I have played a lot of rugby at full-back so I can play there if needs be. Given that they can only take 31 players, having a bit of flexibility hopefully might help,” he added.

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