Skip's Diary - Pride Comes Before the Fall

March 2, 2017

Well, I guess it’s all my own fault! Cambridgeshire’s formerly least successful rugby union team – of which I am the county’s proudest skipper - were, astonishingly, sitting pretty at the top of our merit table after an astonishing run of nine games undefeated.

In sport - any sport - there are certain unwritten rules. One of which is the law of tempting fate.

Commentators do it all the time – for example, during England’s Rugby World Cup game v Wales in September 2015, where, less than 10 minutes from time, England now ‘surely had it in the bag’.

We all know how that one ended up, and as someone who is half-English, half-Welsh, I was probably the only person hoping that England would kick for the draw.

But I digress.

Telling anyone at all about your team’s success is actually the first junction on the highway to failure, and I’m happy to let any member of my squad blame me, wholly and entirely, for what became a rather frustrating couple of weeks.

It started with a 10-10 draw. Not a bad result in the grand scheme of things, and the second time this month that I’ve managed to dispel our head coach’s mantra that ‘draws never happen in rugby.’ It ended with a 46-17 drubbing at the hands of a team five places below us in the league. And it hurt.

After such a strong unbeaten run, we weren’t expecting it, and there was suggestion among some of the lads (especially the younger ones, who didn’t play when we were crap) that, if the first team hadn’t been hit by an injury crisis and cherry-picked half a dozen of our best players, the situation would be different. 

To me, that highlighted the difference between self-belief and complacency. And it’s a big one.

There was a time when our lack of self-belief was the catalyst to a series of defeats. Back then, the occasional victory was a rare treat. It tasted sweet, and was wonderful. As the victories went from rare to infrequent, and infrequent to occasional, the self-belief in our squad grew.

Towards the end of last season, the 20-or-so misfits who would regularly pull on a 2nd XV shirt had gone from being utter rubbish to standing a chance, to the extent that – at the end of the season – I was tearfully proud of what we’d achieved.

We’d gone from no-hopers to have-a-chancers in the space of about 20 weeks, and the pure and simple reason was teamwork.

This season, we were out of the blocks like scalded greyhounds. Some high profile early scalps, some great victories and an injection of youth and skill from the incoming Under-17s gave us the extra 10 per cent that made us 100 per cent better.

We suddenly found ourselves regularly victorious. 

Then, last weekend, it all came crashing down around our ears.

Why?

We’d got complacent, and in the process had let the self-belief slip. 

Assuming we’d turn up and beat a team several places under us in the league did us no good at all – and to be honest, I had a bad feeling right from the start…

Normally, in our pre-game huddle, you can feel the tension, the excitement and the nerves running through the entire team. You can feel the electric current from your teammates’ shoulders buzzing down your own arms, and they, in turn, can feel yours. It’s a nervous energy that bonds teams like nothing else.

But, last Saturday, it wasn’t there.

We were too jokey in the changing room pre-game, too nonchalant as we walked onto the pitch, too confident to allow that nervous energy to flow through our bodies and make us alert. As a result, we conceded an early try, then another, and never really recovered.

At the end of the game, the atmosphere was flat. We didn’t really know what had hit us (though the bruising on my left thigh and kneecap confirmed that at least one of those things was, indeed, a 23-stone Fijian prop), and it was something I’d never felt before in the three years I’ve been part of this team.

The reason why is simply that, historically, we were so used to losing that we simply shrugged it off, grabbed a pint, had a bit of banter with our mates, and went home to bathe off the aches and pains.

And you know what, in many ways that was more fun.

That’s why I’ll be telling the lads in next Saturday’s huddle that, while we’re there to win, the most important thing is that we enjoy the rugby, and never become complacent again. Build back the team spirit and the results will come back, I’m sure…


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