Rugby's Test Match Animals

January 21, 2017

Test Match Animal:  I have a sneaky suspicion that it is a term coined by Sir Ian Mcgeechan, and it was from him that I first heard it fifteen years ago. Whether he did come up with it himself or had done a bit of judicious plagiarising, it does emphasise his particularly lucid grasp of the broader, nebulous concepts of the sport. He realised that club rugby and international rugby were two very different games (perhaps the era he played, when the gap between the pressure felt at the respective levels couldn’t have been greater, helped form this view) and knew exactly what he wanted to see in a successful international rugby player.

Credentials of a TMA

The idea of the “Test Match Animal” may now sound a little corny or glib, but it still remains relevant.

It encapsulates the concept that for a player to succeed at the very highest level, he requires a very particular set of skills (like Liam Neeson), and that not all of those can be learned or taught. The game is quicker and more physical, but a good player can train his body to adjust to this step up and after a few matches at that intensity will be up to speed.

What is far harder to learn is the speed of thought required and the ability to think clearly and calmly under pressure of international rugby.  At the same time, there are those who enjoy that extra pressure and actually thrive on it.

When watching international rugby, the step up is not always evident. Circumstances - poor weather, teams having an off day, an Irish referee - may conspire to slow the game down and give the impression that there is not a huge amount at stake. It is only occasionally that a Six Nations match will leave you awed by its ferocity and the commitment of the players.

The Wales v Ireland game this year was a good example, where the feeling that one small individual error could decide the outcome of a pivotal game was tangible. That is when your true TMAs, such as Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton (pictured below), Paul O’Connell, come to the fore. They go looking for carries, they call the lineouts to themselves and drive the team’s defensive urgency. But even when the quality of the match doesn’t live up to expectations, the mental strain that the players have gone through in the days and hours leading up to it is vastly greater than for an ordinary club match.

It is those players who can consistently deal with that weight who will go on to excel at Test level.

Wales Captain Sam Warburton is a TMA

Warburton is known for his ability to raise his performance levels for the big games

 Variations of TMA

It seems that there are different types of TMA. There are those who play consistently well for their club, going about their work diligently and unobtrusively, and then seamlessly translate that form to the bigger stage. This points up that the requirements for what makes a good international player versus a good club player aren’t always the same. It is often the more prosaic attributes - not making mistakes, work-rate, the ability to stay within a defensive or attacking system - that a national coach looks for. These necessary cogs in the functioning of the team still have to be performed in the pressure cooker of a 70000 seat stadium, but their meat and two veg nature perhaps make them more easily replicable.

This is why a player who may be seen as reliable, unflashy but ultimately ordinary by his own club’s fans can go on to have a long career for his country.

On the flip-side, there are those players who produce countless moments of brilliance for their club but freeze-up when they get to national level. Soft hands turn to teak and a usually unerring boot skews kicks off at impossible angles.

The ideal is to find someone who has the skill and fortitude to be unflustered and produce both the basics and unrivalled skill no matter what the level. George Ford is a pretty good example.

But there are also players who seem to surpass themselves when playing at the highest level. Clearly something about the extra layer of challenge and the occasion brings out the best in them. I always think Sergio Parisse, for example, is a better player for Italy than for his club (although admittedly he doesn’t do too badly at Stade Francais).

Ben Morgan for England would be another case. Whatever is behind this phenomenon, it must be a pretty pleasant position to be in-to know that you will produce your very best form when it matters most.

There is only one way to discover whether a player has the qualities to be a TMA; you guessed it, chuck him in there and see how he gets on. That is why the announcement of the enlarged squads for the World Cup is so interesting. There are players in these groups, England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie, for example, who, judging by their club form, have the potential to be fantastic international players. But until they play two or three Tests, there is no real way of knowing how they will cope and it almost becomes a fascinating, if slightly cruel, human experiment. Will they dominate or will they crumble?

Scotland’s coach Vern Cotter has taken this experiment to the next level. By picking players in his squad, such as Hugh Blake and Allan Dell, who have hardly ever - that’s right, EVER - even played for their club sides, he is doing one of two things:

Either, given Scotland’s lack of depth, he is keen to personally oversee these players development for a whole summer, with an eye to the future.

Alternatively, he is attempting to create a new, purer type of TMA - one who enters the Test arena with almost no preconceptions of what is coming his way and for whom international rugby becomes the norm. No anxiety, no hang-ups, they just get out there and get on with it like it was the most natural thing in the world. Could be the guy’s a genius!

Anyway, just my theory.

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