South Africa Rugby
The eyes behind back-to-back World Cup wins
November 21, 2013
Dr. Sherylle Calder works with Akona Ndungane during her time with the Springboks © Getty Images
"This lady has the ability to make a massive difference. She is a sports scientist operating at the highest level." - Clive Woodward on the impact of Dr. Sherylle Calder.
Sir Clive Woodward is not one to mince his words. Praise does not come easily from the man who guided England to the 2003 World Cup. Nor does Woodward refrain from making controversial calls or adjustments to a sporting infrastructure. As he said in his autobiography, everything boils down to one thing, winning.
When he took on the England coaching job, he did not have an office or a coaching staff. By the time he left, England had a professional structure and rugby's biggest prize to their name. One of his more headline-grabbing calls in the run up to the 2003 World Cup was to call on the services of the world's leading visual awareness coach and former South Africa hockey international Dr. Sherylle Calder.
"I was working for the All Blacks at the time and they were playing in a Test in South Africa and Clive came to watch the test. I met Andy Robinson and Dave Alred then and when my contract ended he invited me to spend a week with the team." Calder told ESPN. "I came over on the Monday worked with the players and management and the next morning, he told me to fetch my bags and to come and work for England. When you work for the All Blacks, word gets around quickly in the rugby circles."
It proved to be a masterstroke; she is the only individual to have won back-to-back World Cups having also helped the Springboks to their title in 2007.
Breaking down exactly what Calder brings to a team is not easy, but she, in Woodward's words, is one of the "one-percenters", someone who can bring added strength to a team or organisation.
In plain terms, Calder is a fitness coach for the eyes. They, like any other muscle, need honing, teaching and strengthening. Her work improves eye-hand coordination, peripheral awareness and various other skills including also the brain processing skills and response and decision making. In rugby, spatial awareness is just as important as keeping your eye on the ball.
JP Pietersen is put through his paces © Getty Images
"My science is based on seeing something and then processing that information accurately and as quickly as you can and then basing your decision on that," Calder explains. "I remember asking Jonny [Wilkinson] about it and he said he used to get the ball and then run, or kick, or pass or whatever the option was.
"After our training, he got the ball and had three decisions and he chose the best one. That's cutting edge and that's what it takes to win World Cups. It works on the same principles as a computer. It's trainable as well, you might be born with your brain, hands and eyes but you can train those skills."
Calder's work, as Woodward later said, was integral to helping England win that World Cup. The players were given tasks to do every day and a leader board was put up in the team room chronicling how much work they had done. Individuals such as Wilkinson have since paid tribute to everything she did and for Calder, it was a proud time to be involved with the set-up.
"I remember very clearly driving to the final on the team bus. We stayed in Manly so it was about an hour's drive to the stadium. I remember people shouting and booing at the bus. But I knew before we left England that by a combination of knowing what the other teams were doing and how good England were, they would win that World Cup. I was pretty confident about that final.
"It was an amazing team, it was a team in time with the combination of players and management and experience. I don't think there'll ever be another team like that again. I'm not so sure they get enough recognition for what they did."
When Woodward left England in 2004, so did Calder. The Springboks soon came calling and before her feet could touch the ground, she was involved in another project targeting the World Cup. She admits that winning the trophy for England made her "not the most popular person in South Africa" but that was soon forgotten when she helped Jake White's men to the title in 2007.
Working with Bryan Habana © Getty Images
Central to South Africa's push for that title was winger and tournament top try-scorer Bryan Habana. He has since labelled Calder "a vital cog in helping me back to my best" and she credits her work as part of the reason why he managed to score the semi-final winning interception try against Argentina. Her work saw his reaction time cut from 0.56 of a second to 0.18.
Calder admits Habana's words were "special" and has continued to help him after leaving South Africa in 2007 but she is loathed to single out one player for praise from her time with the two World Cup-winning sides.
"I'm proud of all of the people I worked with both for England and South Africa. Jonny was IRB Player of the Year and so was Bryan and they have given me a lot of credit for their performances. But I'd hate to exclude anyone; they all have special skills in their own area."
Her role in rugby did not end when she left the Boks as she helped Eddie Jones' Suntory Sungoliath in 2011 and 2012. She is now based in Cape Town's Sports Science Institute of South Africa and Stellenbosch Academy of Sport and her time is divided between working alongside Ernie Els and also other sports such as F1, cricket and a "big European soccer team who we aren't allowed to mention at the moment".
She is showing no signs of slowing down. "As I get on, I learn every day as work with different teams and get better at what I do but the principles remain the same of training players to improve their input skills, the processing of information and how they then respond."
Woodward called on her for the 2012 Olympics but Stuart Lancaster is yet to do the same. As England remember the 2003 World Cup-winning side this week, a decade since that achievement, although sometimes it is good to put previous triumphs to bed for the good of the future, you feel Calder could be an important 'one-percenter' for this current crop of players if called upon.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.