It’s amazing who you can bump into at our events. At RBN Leeds earlier this year, where Stuart Lancaster gave an enlightening and inspiring 45 minute address, I found myself standing next to Phil Larder.
As well as being one of the world’s most knowledgeable and authoritative coaches (two Lions tours and an instrumental role in England’s 2003 World Cup win are but two highlights of a stellar career), Phil is one of the game’s true gentlemen. It therefore came as great news to hear that Phil has recently released a fascinating book, The Iron Curtain, and it’s one that will delight rugby fans of both codes.
It comes highly recommended by all of us here at the RBN and it is available for purchase here The Iron Curtain. Below are Phil’s thoughts on the book, its subject matter and some other hot topics, including winning World Cups and Sam Burgess.
You worked and played in elite rugby for 36 years. What finally made you decide to put that vast experience on paper?
It started while I was swapping a few stories over a beer or two with my old friend Alun Carter, the ex-Wales international. I’d never seriously considered writing a book, but Alun was convinced I had more than enough material, so he put me in touch with Nick Bishop, the rugby analyst with whom he’d written their book ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly: the rise and fall of Pontypool RFC’.
Nick encouraged me to jot down some stories and ideas, so I started to write about my early life. I found it enjoyable and the whole project really steamed along from that point, with Nick shaping my words into the finished product. He has a great rugby brain and was a huge help.
With so many coaches and squads trying everything to win World Cups, what enabled you to do just that in 2003?
Winning the World Cup was the end of an incredible journey that started several years earlier. So many things came together to culminate in that win. The confidence we gained from beating all the Southern Hemisphere superpowers away from home was the first of two key factors, with the process by which we ensured the players on the pitch that night were the ones who would best handle the incredible pressure they’d be under being the second. We rated that characteristic above talent.
What was the dynamic between players and coaches?
Clive assembled an incredible group of players and a coaching unit who were just as keen to learn. Dave Alred worked with the kickers, Jonny Wilkinson in particular; Phil Keith-Roach worked with the scrum and the front row in particular (he had a massive impact on guys like Phil Vickery); Simon Hardy worked on the lineout, focusing on the locks and hookers; and I focused on team defence and the loose forwards.
The aim was to empower the players, so that they’d slowly take the reins. Neil Back was the defensive captain on the field and Martin Johnson exerted a huge influence. England’s win percentage was 82% with him and 54% without. During the week of a test match, control would slowly be handed from the coaches to Martin and his lieutenants.
Did England consciously abandon their free-scoring game plan in the lead-up to the 2003 tournament?
We did go through a period of scoring tries seemingly at will against the 6 Nations teams (not so much against the Tri- Nations sides) and a lot of that was down to Brian Ashton, our visionary attack coach.
It might have looked like we tightened-up as it got closer to the World Cup, but the truth is that defences improved. The 2001 Lions tour was the catalyst, with all the 6 Nations sides hiring ex-rugby league coaches before the World Cup (Alan Tait started with Scotland in 2000, Dave Ellis and Clive Griffiths joined France and Wales in 2001 and Mike Ford took control of the Irish defence in 2002). By 2003, tries were much harder to come by.
As an established expert in both codes, how do you think Sam Burgess will get on in Union?
Sam Burgess is arguably the best rugby league player of his generation and certainly the best English one, so I would expect him to excel at whatever he chooses to do. Having said that, I would have probably advised him against the move.
I have two sons who play rugby, one in each code, and they are both of the same opinion: ‘just get him on the pitch’. However, he won me over against France and, if it was up to me now, I’d be picking him. It was obvious what his presence meant to a team lacking characters like Sam, Martin Johnson or Lawrence Dallaglio.
It’s the biggest compliment I could give anyone to compare him to Ellery Hanley and, like Hanley, Sam needs to be involved in 25 hits and tackles per game, so I wondered where he’d be able to get that in Union. I think he’ll find his home at 6, where his high Rugby League IQ will be more applicable and he can play his natural game.
Whether it’s a year early or not, I know he will make an impact.