PLAYING FOR THE SHIRT

Apart from the thrill of returning crowds, we have seen a real celebration of rugby skills on show in the first two months of the season. The Premiership, in particular, continued where it left off at the end of last season together with the resurgence of a Leicester team which has embraced its heritage but with a wonderful extra twist of flair, inspired by George Ford. Hats off to Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield – they have a mix of youth and experience which blends so well and their leadership is clear. There is a really excellent off-field environment – I experienced it first-hand last season- and this success is sustainable after all that promise of last year.Across the channel, the Top 14 has been super competitive (I love seeing Biarritz back at the top) and the new URC is developing fast and will be a powerhouse tournament. Players are reconnecting with the fans and remembering why they choose to play the game in the first place.We all hear about pride in the shirt and nowhere more than with the British & Irish Lions. That can come under pressure when things go wrong as they did in SA. We remember the 2005 tour which unravelled horribly, but this time it wasn’t the imbalance between the two teams but the stultifying tactics. One by one, players are coming out of the woodwork and questioning the party line, revealing unhappiness and frustration. The England players’ report on the 2011 World Cup was all revealing on the broken structure and in a more subtle way the same has happened here. It is really simple if you choose to play that way you have to win and nothing else will do. Even then it was not easy on the eye for a game that needed to re-engage post-pandemic. The value of the shirt has to be matched on the field and be reflected in performance.Was anyone really surprised at the performance of Saracens at Bath the other weekend? I have watched them at close hand in Europe and it is all about relentless ambition as well as a sense of family. One of my strongest memories as Chairman of EPCR was a call from Mark McCall, coach at Saracens, in the wake of one of their trophy wins. He wanted more medals made for the off-field support team. He explained quietly that this was a whole club effort and he wished to acknowledge their value. The request was not easy to deliver but it was done and spoke volumes for the Saracens and their guiding principles. It reminded me of the great Bath teams of the ’80s in which it was my privilege to play – we were the Bath family. One senior female supporter often cried out at quiet times during the match- ’Come on my lovers!’ – metaphorically speaking of course.Some of our best defensive performances happened when we had won the game but did not want the opposition to score, not even a consolation try. This was about a relationship, a bond, not wanting to let yourself and your teammates down. If we ever lost, the debrief was painful but honest, no platitudes allowed. Training would intensify and opposition teams would suffer the backlash. When we lost a cup quarterfinal to Moseley in 1987, we eyeballed each other in the changing room post-match and made a vow. We did not lose a cup match for three years following and went on to become the most successful club in English league and cup history. We never forgot that defeat.This is what playing for the shirt really means, and for those who wear it alongside you. Successful teams of any era will talk about it, and as Autumn Internationals approach it will be very interesting to see how the players will motivate themselves. Arguably this is the start of the countdown to the next Rugby World Cup – no team plays harder for the shirt than the Springboks but is Twickenham on the 20th a game too far?