by Preeti Virdee
27th September 2012
ENGLISH RUGBY royalty turned out to announce a ground-breaking partnership between two historic brands to build a long-lasting pipeline of rugby talent through the BMW Performance Academy, as part of the RFU National Academy Programme. RFU Chief Executive Ian Ritchie was joined by Chief Commercial Officer, Sophie Goldschmidt, and England Head Coach, Stuart Lancaster. The RFU contingent was hosted by Tim Abbott, Managing Director of BMW Group UK at their state-of-the-art training and development Academy in Berkshire.
BMW may be an iconic German brand since its beginnings as a motorcycle manufacturer in Munich, Bavaria in 1917, after the business was forced to cease producing aircraft engines by the Versailles Armistice Treaty of the Great War, but Bayerische Motoren Werke AG is today synonymous with two of the greatest automobile brands in England’s green and pleasant land; Rolls Royce and Mini are now manufactured by BMW. And this year BMW signed a 4 year deal to become the Official Vehicle Partner of England Rugby, after Land Rover -formerly owned by BMW- ended its 10 year association with the Union.
In addition to key England Rugby personnel now being seen in all manner of BMW vehicles, from sensible 3 series saloons to sporting X6 4x4s, the RFU also have on tap 90 impressive liveried Minis, though whether the CEO will be seen swanning around in a Rolls Royce is yet to be seen. He appears to be not quite as ostentatious as a previous chief exec of 12 years in his string of Aston Martins parked in front of Rugby House.
But the partnership is not limited to just the England Elite. The deal encompasses the crème de la crème of English players, right through all the age grades as front of shirt sponsors of England U16, U18 and U20 squads.The BMW Performance Academy is a long term initiative to nurture and develop the England Rugby stars of tomorrow through a programme of tailored support to see them progress from school boys, through professional and international careers and beyond, concentrating on four key areas where BMW already has expertise through its association with other sport, including the most successful Olympians in history, Team GB.
Personal Development Training includes management, team work, leadership, innovation and resilience. BMW Ambassador Mentors will guide Academy members through their extensive experience of coping with pressure, media attention etc., and includes TV personalities, Olympians, professional sports people and industry leaders. Responsible Driver Training and Work Experience across the BMW Group of businesses will also be invaluable to the chosen 30 players ear-marked for senior honours. The first tranche to enter the Academy have been selected by the England coaches from across the age-grades led by Stuart Lancaster, who was the RFU Head of Elite Player Development for four years, before he was appointed as Head Coach. No one knows England’s potential as well.
With England 2015 only 3 years away, Lancaster’s special focus lies with the players who sit between the Under 20s and Saxons, some of whom will make the cut in the final Rugby World Cup squad. The England elite coaching team of Lancaster, Graham Rowntree, Andy Farrell, and most recent addition, Mike Catt have the luxury of spending much of their time at Premiership grounds, assessing the potential future England elite.
With the November QBE Internationals looming in a matter of weeks against four fundamentally diverse teams in terms of style, there is not much time to prepare. A fortnight of Premiership Rugby is followed by the first two rounds of European action, and the Head Coach continues to keep the team on their toes. There is little direct contact with the senior squad as they bed into the Premiership season, but once Round 2 of ERC Rugby is over and the QBE Internationals are launched, the squad will head up North once again for a few days before settling in at Pennyhill Park for the duration, a venue convenient to Twickenham with purpose-built facilities to be retained for the 2012-13 season. This time it is St George’s Park, another state-of-the-art facility, built by the FA; the training base for the 24 England football teams set in the National Forest, in 330 acres of beautifully landscaped parkland. The discussion for England Rugby to build such a facility is ongoing.
The coaching set up is now settled for the national side after Andy Farrell made a massive U-turn, first turning down the permanent England job for loyalty to Saracens, but swiftly realising when he finally had time to dwell on the prospect of coaching the cream of the country against the best in the world, or sticking with a club who treated him well. Country won the battle over club, made all the more certain from a hotel room in Australia in the middle of the night, suffering from jetlag, watching England almost overcome the Springboks but having no walkie talkie to hand to let them know what next. With the blessing of Sarries owner Nigel Wray, Faz returned to where he was being drawn after an emotional rollercoaster. As for Mike Catt expanding the triumvirate, the two knew each other already, had been teammates, went to a world cup together the year England reached the Final in Paris, and they are most comfortable says Farrell.
By passing the responsibility of detailed translation of his grand plan to his assistant coaches, and Catty afforded the specific job of attacking skills, Lancaster now has the freedom to oversee his squads and analyse how best to tackle Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, but there is no danger of him getting out of his tracksuit and into a corporate strait-jacket...coaching is what he does. As well as regularly visiting Premiership venues, the coaches are heading to Soweto in October for the Springbok - All Black encounter to size up the opposition in the final round of The inaugural Rugby Championship. Lancaster et al have been keeping a close eye on the Southern Hemisphere teams, and have been impressed with debutants Argentina who England face next summer on tour whilst the Lions are in Australia.
The management are comfortable with the EPS for now, but realise there are still areas where the depth required for four consecutive matches is not quite there yet. The team that starts against New Zealand in December will be much different to that against Fiji four weeks earlier; the side facing the All Blacks will need to be mentally and physically fit, thus giving the entire squad the opportunity to vie for positions. And with Ben Foden recovering from surgery, Mike Brown and Alex Goode will have their opportunity to make a statement. Since Matt Stevens’ retirement, David Wilson (Bath Rugby) is promoted from the Saxons, with New Zealand-born Mako Vunipola (Saracens) stepping up from the U20s. The only real concern is in the centres, but there is still time yet.
After a positive learning experience in South Africa, Lancaster is pleased with where the England elite is today, with self belief, confidence and exemplary discipline in abundance. With the correct and rehearsed systems and structures in place, and good preparation before the Fiji game including unique plans for all four matches, there is little reason for England to not be successful. And to add to the positives, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes are back on the field, whilst Alex Corbisiero, Ben Youngs and Louis Deacon are on track to get match fit before November.
The question over the captaincy remains. To take nothing from the marvellous job Chris Robshaw has done, Lancaster is glad the leadership group is working so well. After Robbo was named South Africa Tour captain, Dylan Hartley made a magnificent replacement, leading the team for the final test against the Springboks after the captain suffered an injury. One gets the distinct impression it is not a case of no confidence in Robbo but more of not tempting fate. After all, it was Chris who was sent to Gloucestershire for the England Canterbury Kit Launch along with Women’s XVs and 7s, and Men’s 7s captains.
For England, the RFU, and the new partners, and England 2015 around the corner, exciting times are ahead. The strategy is in place...now is the time to execute it with some panache, and show planet rugby the nation that gave the world rugby is ready to claim back its place.