Lancaster in awe of 'Olympic fitness'
August 13, 2012
Could the cycling success of the likes of Sir Chris Hoy lay the foundation for a successful assault on the Rugby World Cup in 2015? © Getty Images
"How do you get someone to be the best that they can be?" teased Great Britain's cycling performance director Dave Brailsford as he bathed in the afterglow of the eight gold medals won by his team at the London Olympics.
It is a question he is closer than most to answering. His squad cut a similar swathe through the 2008 Games and Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France earlier this year - something he followed up with Olympic glory. That kind of coaching record will inevitably attract the attention of others trying to hit similar heights - and England coach Stuart Lancaster is no exception.
A long-term admirer of Brailsford and his world-famous "marginal gains" approach, which suggests that a 1% improvement in everything you do will result in significant gains overall, Lancaster has revealed his desire to harness such expertise as he and his squad prepare for their assault on the Rugby World Cup crown on home soil in 2015.
"You just have to look at the conduct and quality of the Olympians from Great Britain, their professionalism and the way they have prepared," Lancaster said. "I actually talked to the players about Olympic fitness and by that I don't mean I want them to be like Bradley Wiggins or Mo Farrah, what I meant was the dedication to become that good and that professional and I think the players have been inspired by the Olympics and what they have seen."
While the glut of gold medals may have pleasantly surprised some, Lancaster was privy to the building blocks being put in place during his time as the Rugby Football Union's (RFU) head of elite development.
"In my former role I managed to sneak myself into the UK Sport coaching conference," he explained. "You go there as a coach yourself and meet the coach of taekwondo or hockey or whatever and they all do their presentations and you come out thinking actually there are a lot of good coaches out here.
"I also understood the mission 2012 concept and how UK Sport and Peter Keen assessed and appraised each sport. I could see how they had systematically planned for the Olympics and the governing bodies had invested time in them. I have been able to take all that learning and apply it rugby."
It is Brailsford who has struck a chord with Lancaster, who has continued to soak up the experiences of others in the hope it gets his side closer to their main goal.
"I read the Team Sky book," he added, referring to Richard Moore's account of their failed attempt to win the Tour de France in 2010, The Sky's The Limit. "I was interested in how they got the selflessness in a team where athletes who were gold medallists or winners themselves were supporting Bradley Wiggins in his attempt to win the Tour de France.
"I was also interested in how that team was built and Dave brought in guys from outside cycling, people with new ideas and it is definitely something we need to do in rugby. In my evolution of the management team over the next 12 months there is definitely scope for that."
The chances of Brailsford joining the England support staff appear remote, aside from eventually taking up an invite to address the squad - having not been able to do so when asked on the eve of this year's Six Nations. The lure of the Rio Games in 2016 and dominance of the Tour de France are set to monopolise his services.
"I think I have got to be very, very careful," he said in the wake of his latest success. "The one thing I know about is cycling. It's what I've done, it's what I know about. It's nice when you get offered different things from different sports but ultimately I will be staying with cycling."
That is not to say he isn't happy to share the 'secrets' of his team's success, which include teaching his athletes how to wash their hands correctly in a bid to avoid illness and missed training sessions and the requirement that they travel with the same pillow to ensure a good night's sleep.
"It's all down to good planning," he offered. "We know, certainly in track cycling, that the Olympics is the pinnacle, it comes round once every four years and four years is a long time to stay at the same intensity and the same level of performance so we quite deliberately come down off the back of an Olympic Games and then build back up towards the Olympics and try to peak then.
"If you take cycling out of it, we've thought about the personal excellence. How do you get someone to be the best that they can be? If you stop and really think about that, how do you get the best out of somebody and pretty much guarantee that on a big stage someone will be the best that they can be? We thought long and hard about that and then applied it to cycling and I think the model we came up with could be applied to anything to make the best lawyer, the best dentist or whatever."
England's backroom team work with Lucozade Sport to ensure that the players are properly hydrated © Getty Images
Whereas Brailsford uses the analogy of 'steak and peas' to compare and contrast the groundwork and the finesse elements of preparation, Lancaster prefers 'cake and icing'.
"What we have done, in the past, is focus on the icing with things like GPS and all that and haven't actually got a strong team culture, team spirit in place with players wanting to work hard for each other," he said.
"I now think we are at that second stage, where we are talking about the detail, the marginal gains bit, but you can't get there before you have the cake. In the next 12 months we'll be looking at all that type of stuff.
"There are things coming up like a new kit with a new design and the changing rooms are being changed so can we find an improvement there? But equally it is about the players adopting that Olympic mindset of 'I will do everything I can to be the fittest I can be'. It is easier in the sports where you have complete control of your athletes but we don't have that so you have to make it work with the clubs."
Lancaster is convinced his focus on "the process" rather than the outcome will eventually bring due reward, with the luxury of '10 world class players' within his squad one of his main goals, alongside setting suitable standards off the field.
"You want to make sure all the focus is on playing," he said with England's Rugby World Cup debacle still relatively fresh in the mind. "If you are in a situation where you have let yourself down personally or the team has discipline issues it is inevitably a distraction for the players. It minimises distractions and maximises focus when you don't have any off the field things to worry about."
In their quest, Lancaster is aware that the players may have another trump card at their disposal. "The other thing I talked to players about was the power of a nation behind the country," enthused Lancaster. "You can see on TV what it means to the country and how that transfers into the athletes and their performances. I have said to the players that the next big sporting event of this size in England will be the World Cup in 2015. We've got it coming around the corner in our sport, how powerful could that be? How exciting is that? I think the players recognise that and I know we are three years away from that but it will come round the corner very quickly."
Lucozade Sport fuels England Rugby to go Faster. Stronger. For Longer. Lucozade Sport is the Official Sports Drink of the England Senior, Saxons, Sevens and Women's squads and also use their expertise to support amateur players throughout the country. For more information go to www.lucozade.com
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.