Saturday 21 July 2018

Masters of mind games ready to go head to head

England head coach Eddie Jones and Wales supremo Warren Gatland will have already worked out their strategies for the coming days leading to Saturday's high-octane encounter at Twickenham Photo: Getty
England head coach Eddie Jones and Wales supremo Warren Gatland will have already worked out their strategies for the coming days leading to Saturday's high-octane encounter at Twickenham Photo: Getty

Mick Cleary

There has never been such a thing in sport as mind games, only coaching.

That much was in evidence in Cardiff on Saturday when that wise old bird, Warren Gatland, got one over the young Scottish turk, Gregor Townsend, long before the match had started. It was the same to a lesser degree in Paris and Rome where the deep-rooted good practices of Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones played an integral part in victories for Ireland and, far more routinely, England.

But to suggest that what Gatland pulled off was something out of the ordinary, to intimate that getting his players in the right head space was a one-off clever ruse is to deny the very stuff of coaching. Setting the agenda, sending out the right messages, establishing the tone is what the job is all about. Mind games are the essence, not the exception.

Two masters of that particular trade, Jones and Gatland, will have already worked out their strategies for the coming days leading to Saturday's high-octane encounter at Twickenham.

Off-the-cuff

Nothing that is said will be uttered by chance. There is no such thing as an off-the-cuff remark from these guys. Everything is calculated to create a match-winning scenario for the players.

Wales heading to Twickenham where England have not lost a Six Nations match since 2012 when Wales beat them, 19-12? Intimidating?

Forbidding? Of course it ought to be. But in Warren's world, it isn't. And it has been important to make that clear right from the outset. Gatland just happened to muse aloud that Wales's sequence of Six Nations matches in this championship was the same as when they won Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012. Oh, and there was the little matter of a Wales win at Twickenham in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. All anxiety allayed in the Wales camp. All eventualities now a distinct possibility rather than an outlandish claim.

And from England? Radio silence so far. Jones was pressed repeatedly on Sunday evening at the Stadio Olimpico for his reaction to Wales's all-consuming win over Scotland. The England head coach had seen the match.

But, no, he had no thoughts on the matter. This was deliberate. Jones knew exactly what he was saying. Or not saying. He was holding back. Silence can also speak volumes.

That is just as Jones would want it. All he has done so far is pointedly remind everyone just how inspiring a backdrop Twickenham is for his players. He is a master of the dark art: fortify one side, needle the other. Look at Jones's initial take on Sam Simmonds. His first public comment on the Exeter Chiefs player was that he was too much of a lightweight in body shape to make it as a top-grade Test No 8. Fast forward several months to post-match in Rome and Jones was reminded of what he had said.

"Life is full of contradictions," he simply replied.

The coach would have known that his remarks would get through to Simmonds himself, partly for him to graft even harder on his conditioning, partly to illustrate that he had to use what he had. Speed it was then, and speed it was that twice shredded the Azzurri defence on Sunday. Jones does not waste a syllable. Nor Gatland.

It can backfire as it did when he questioned Dylan Hartley's temperament a few years ago only for the Northampton hooker to prove him wrong out on the field.

But goading is part of the game. So, too, is keeping quiet. There is a public mood to project, a persona to adopt. The battle for a toehold across the psychological gain-line is every bit as critical as the tussle for supremacy on the field of play itself. The game within the game coming your way over the next few days.

Telegraph.co.uk

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