The latest in our stellar cast of legends this afternoon is British and Irish Lion Nigel Redman, who casts his eye over all things rugby and says elite performance has always been the name of the game at Bath Rugby.
Hot on the heels of the amazing World Cup tournament last year came this consecutive 29-week season encompassing European and domestic commitments. A happy rugby overdose for all of us partial to the game.
Much has been made of the challenges the relentless nature of the 2015/16 season presents to all the clubs, particularly when one considers the Premiership is the most competitive league competition in the world.
For us professional scribes, at this point in early March, finding a superlative or metaphor to describe what we are witnessing is perhaps more challenging than it might be; ’attritional’, ‘relentless’,’demanding’- it’s on a certain theme, let’s be honest.
Of course, for the players and coaching staff, the job goes on. Whatever the result seven days prior, everyone must pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get on with it. London Irish and Bath Rugby will do so today for our entertainment.
There is perhaps one term which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in describing the relentless nature of the calendar. That word is “unique.”
It’s been used everywhere, in fact most likely on these pages, one must confess, but talking to legendary lock forward Nigel Redman this week, we launch into an examination of executing first-class, elite performance, under such professional duress.
If one takes the time to leaf through the excellent ‘After the Lemons’ history book penned by Club historian Kevin Coughlan, however, one thing is plainly apparent.
The schedule kept in the amateur days in club rugby was every bit as challenging, far more so in fact, if you factor in a wet Wednesday night across the Severn Bridge into the plans.
Since his retirement in 1999, Nigel has made his living in the field of elite performance in sport and business. He is now working with UK Sport towards the Olympic effort this summer in Rio, notably with British Swimming, as well as Premier League football and the Ashridge House Business School.
Although he agrees that the players these days face many challenges in their effort to turn in a good shift on match day when it matters most, he says the professional environment leaves little room for excuses, when you consider what he and his teammates went through, purely for the love of the game.
“It is relentless, but it’s always been like that. It’s all relative, I know, but in the old days, guys used to play 60 times a year and work!
“People will say it’s different now, and it is, but in the old days, there were other things, there was work. Some guys used to work twelve-hour shifts and then play.
“I know it’s all relative, but there were distractions and things working against performance in the past, and now everything is geared towards performance. The hits are bigger, but the players are better conditioned. It’s all relative.”
Our expectations of our sporting heroes are keener than ever, we agree. Ask any of the embattled London Irish supporters making the journey here today about how long this season has felt to date, and how short the time is to extricate themselves from the relegation mire.
Nigel expands, saying that the demands placed on players in terms of performance are relative to the public demand for success, whatever your parochial persuasion. He says,
“I think that we are getting increasingly less patient as a population around sport and developing teams. The players get a lot of preparation time. But, with that said, these guys have time to develop their game and some of the players spend longer on themselves than others. That’s like any profession.”
Nigel started playing rugby at school in Weston Super Mare at 15, having played a lot of football.“Unsurprisingly I was a goalkeeper,” he once wrote. “I was the only person happy to dive full-length on concrete.”
Nigel’s rise to the first team ranks at Bath was swift. He won the John Player Cup final in 1984 against Bristol in his debut season - a proud career stat is that Nigel represented Bath in all ten cup final victories, fondly remembering the opening derby with Bristol and the victory over Gloucester in 1990 above all.
Selected for the South and South West England side at 19, he faced the touring Australian side, a glittering constellation at the time; Nick Farr-Jones, Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and David Campese the men against whom he cut his teeth at international level.
Nigel went to two World Cups, the first in 1987 and then again in 1991 - winning 20 England caps over 13 years.
He takes up the tale of his formative years at the Club, and the famous win over Bristol in April 1984 - the first of his ten victorious final outings. He says he was a young man who took his chance,
“It was one of those seasons, where we had two experienced second row forwards: one was an Irish international called Ronnie Hakin, and the other was an established second row called Nigel Gaymond. They were probably being picked in all the games.
“From my perspective, I was eighteen when I joined Bath. For me it was a case of waiting for an opportunity. I had several during the season, I suppose as the season progressed I became more noticed!
“I actually played in the semi-final against Nottingham – that was a replayed game, we won that. Then it came down to selection for the final and I was lucky enough to get the nod over Ronnie Hakin.
“Ronnie was a terrific, very mobile lock with a great set of hands. I was very fortunate to be selected over Ronnie.”
We have read with great interest about that winning culture established during Nigel’s tenure in the amateur era. Bath were combative, combustible, brilliant and believed in themselves above all. Such qualities have no doubt helped ‘Olly’ in his subsequent career.
He echoes the sentiment of several of our interviewees here this season, in saying that it took genuine character to prevail here, such were the expectations of the squad on each other, before a single stud crossed the whitewash for a match.
“It was terrific being part of an evolving team. It was never one team. It was always evolving and when new players came in, the challenge was for them to get into the first team,” he confirms.
Good things come to those who wait, and Nigel had to wait until the final year of his international career for the ultimate call up: joining the touring British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1997.
Nigel was self-admittedly surprised even to be playing rugby at the time. Having undergone serious knee surgery, he found himself surprised to be asked to join the England tour of Argentina that summer by Jack Rowell, but leapt at the chance.
Battle had been joined with a gnarly, tough ensemble in Buenos Aires including the likes of Roberto Grau and Federico Mendez, and England had won. Injury to Doddie Weir and then Jeremy Davidson and Simon Shaw paved the way for ‘Olly’ to captain the Lions against Free State in his second tour match.
Nigel contends that it’s a mindset, a spirit, that hauled him from contemplating retirement to enjoying some of his finest moments on a rugby field. He says,
“It started with me contemplating retirement because I had knee problems, and then I had a phone call from Jack Rowell who basically said would I like to come to Argentina and I said yes!
“It’s like anything, if you want to be involved in things, you have to commit. I committed to the England tour and ended up captaining the British Lions, and ended up playing again for England in Australia in July. It was a long season!”
All of this co-incided with the advent of the professional game of course, a period which Nigel says was trying for all concerned at Bath Rugby. That perceptual switch was perhaps the biggest barrier of all to continuing the consistently excellent performance.
“One day in 1996 I went to sleep as an electrician who had become a sales rep, and the following day I was a professional rugby player. I think Bath struggled initially with that change.
“One of the things we ask coaches and businesses now, is ‘Why do you do what you do?’
“For us at Bath, there was a deep sense of love for what we were doing. With players who came to the club there was an internal argument between being part of something which has been big and is growing, and then being paid for it, this is my job, therefore these are my roles and responsibilities.
“Actually, playing for Bath at the time went way beyond roles and responsibilities, if that makes sense. We took some time to get used to that. I suppose there were glimpses of it in the next three years. Winning the European Cup was one of those peaks if you like.”
That famous day in 1998 is naturally one of Nigel’s fondest memories because the victory embodied what Bath Rugby meant. A passion, a spirit, a collective unity. He continues,
“That was a representation of what the club was about. It was a group of men and women in the support staff, who went to Bordeaux to play the European Champions in their back yard. That’s what the Club is about: it’s about going to those places and coming away with a win against the odds.
“By no means did we batten down the hatches and say, ‘No one likes us’. It wasn’t about others, it was about the people in the changing room. It was about playing and performing and not letting each other, or yourself, down.”
“Leicester had played Brive the previous season in Cardiff and Brive beat a very good Leicester team. When we went down to Bordeaux, nobody gave us a hope. It was an older team which performed on the day. We were the first English team to win that competition.”
And famously so.
Nigel joined Worcester Warriors Academy in 1999 and thus began a love affair with developing young talent in the game. He went on to excel with the RFU, working alongside Jon Callard with the England U20 and U21 sides, winning the inaugural Grand Slam with an U20 side including Alex Goode (Saracens) and Joe Simpson (Wasps).
A young Master George Ford crossed his path more than once during that time.
“Good people make good teams,” Nigel once said. Although he had several offers within the Premiership on announcing his retirement, Nigel was adamant that he wanted to learn from the ground up, coaching Basingstoke in London One, then setting up a regional academy for the RFU in the Midlands.
In 2014, he was appointed to lead elite coach development at British Swimming, to use his wealth of experience to help meet World Class Performance Targets. Nigel has plenty of experience on the Olympic paddock having coached bobsleigh amongst other things in his time at UK Sport.
He will be in Rio in the summer, and agrees that watching rugby at the Games will be an amazing opportunity for our sport.
In closing, we muse over the modern second row position. Nigel is adamant that he was considered small for a lock at 6’ 3” and had to adapt his game to compete as a result.
What does he make of the position of second row now - in the year when Brodie Retallick of New Zealand became the first lock to win the Player of the Year gong, after all?
“I think what it is, is that the bigger men are becoming more athletic and not purely depending on their height. I was always short. I was six foot three, so I had to bring something else to the game. Mobility, I suppose, competitiveness and aggression. I like to think I had a good pair of hands.
“Now it’s the tall guys who are playing that game. Brodie is 6’8” - Martin Johnson at 6’7” was a big athletic man. Wade Dooley was a 6’8” athletic player from previous days. In many cases you used to look at the lineout, and only the lineout. These days you go beyond that into the defensive things, they have to be good scrummagers which you always had to be, and they have to add in attack.
“From a personal perspective, my game had to be more suited to back row than second row in some respects, or more about a blend, purely because of my height. Now it’s a given at 6’8” and above.
“You have to be able to lock that scrummage out, with the incredible force that travels through there. These guys have got to be big, strong, athletic and mobile. If you like, an all-round athlete.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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