Milla’s time: A profile of Cameroonian legend Roger Milla

Perhaps no image sums up Italia 90 as much as that of an impish, grinning, gap-toothed, pencil-moustachioed 38-year-old Cameroonian, dancing his jig at the corner flag. “Not quite a samba but an erotic dance in front of the flag, finishing with the hand down by the groin, just to show the virile way that the defence had been pierced,” suggested the novelist Eugène Ebode.

The heart-warming tale of Roger Milla, whose four goals propelled the unlikely Indomitable Lions to the quarter-final is as absurd as it is brilliant. Playing out the twilight of his career in a semi-professional league on an Indian Ocean island, Milla was brought back into the international fold by his country’s leader and lit up the imagination of countless football fans and young Africans. On the strength of only three hours of football in that tournament Milla was named African Player of the Year for 1990, 14 years after he first won the accolade, and, in 2006, he went on to be crowned the African player of the last century.

Albert Roger Mooh Miller was born on 20 May 1952, in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé, to a football-mad father who earned a modest wage working for the national railway network. Milla, like every other Cameroonian boy at the time, idolised the 1960s national hero Mbappe ‘Marshall’ Leppe, captain of Oryx Douala who had won the first African Champions Cup in 1965, and based his game on the wiry, skilful and strong striker. The young Milla, more interested in football than schoolwork, also collected newspaper cuttings of Pelé and taped them to his bedroom wall. He was six when Pelé shone in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, becoming the tournament’s youngest goalscorer at 17 years and 239 days). 36 years later, at USA 94, the Cameroonian would score against Russia to become the World Cup’s oldest scorer, aged 42 years and 39 days.

“When I was young, I loved playing football — it was the only thing I did,” Milla told me, the familiar grin causing his thin lips to curl. “Although we were poor, I was playing football purely as a passion and with a child’s eye — it meant that I was not as aware of any poverty around me. Football allowed me to lose myself; it was my everything. I never played football for the money, I simply loved being on the pitch.

“I remember when I was at school, my PE teacher used to take me to games on his motorbike. At the end of the game, he would be waiting for me to jump on his bike and he would take me to another match. I could play five games in a day with no problem.

“One day I forgot to do my homework, and in those days that meant a flogging from my teacher. I was scared and instead of going to school I hid somewhere in town. I was sad because we had an important match that day and not being at school meant I was going to miss it. My PE teacher sent my friends to look for me and promised that I was not going to be punished for not doing my homework and bunking off school. When I arrived at the pitch, everyone was chanting my name. I saved the match and we won. I was treated like a hero and that felt great!”

It was a feeling that Milla would become accustomed to. Moving from the countryside — where he fired at birds with his catapult and kicked oranges around with his friends — to Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, the 11-year-old Milla soon became renowned for his mesmeric dribbling. Turning out for local sides he earned pocket-money and signed his first playing license aged 13, on the instruction of a school teacher. “I didn’t go in to football to make money, but to do something that I thoroughly enjoyed doing, and it seemed so natural,” Milla insisted.

He was light on his feet, but also gifted with strong, powerful thighs. Indeed, he was the Cameroon schools’ high-jump champion at 17, two years after he had made his second-division debut for L’Eclair de Douala. Milla soon moved on to Léopard de Douala, where he netted 89 goals in 117 appearances between 1971 and 1974.

The German coach Peter Schnittger, in charge of Cameroon in the early 1970s, remembered how the Léopard’s starlet grabbed the attention of Africa. “He was very young still, and thin, not an ounce of fat on him,” he told Ian Hawkey in Feet of the Chameleon. “His legs were like chopsticks. He weighed maybe 60 kilos, but he was so fast. He had a great belief in himself even then.”

Playing a Champions Cup match against Hafia in the Guinean capital Conakry, in front of a number of heads of state including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Milla starred. “At half-time, Hafia were 2-0 up,” continued Schnittger, “and in the second half we scored four. When Milla scored his first goal, he just exploded into life. He was like a gazelle, bounding around. He scored a hat-trick in the end. The next day, the team went on an official visit to the Guinean leader, SékouTouré and all his guests from the summit. Touré made a speech, saying ‘This was not just a victory for Cameroon, not the Léopards, it was a triumph for all the youth of Africa.’ People were just bowled over by Milla.”

Milla’s successes in Africa were achieved chiefly with Tonnerre Yaoundé, the team he moved to in 1974 from Léopard. Hescored 69 times in only 87 games and in 1976 he was named African Player of the Year. The award caused European sides to take note and the 25 year old moved to the French club Valenciennes the following year. He would go on to play in France for 13 years, turning out for AS Monaco, Bastia, Saint-Étienne and finally Montpellier.

“To have Milla in your team was to have a diamond,” said Claude Le Roy, who coached Cameroon in the late 1980s. “You could spend a week in training with him and he would not make a single technical mistake. Then he spent a long time in France and if you look at the clubs they may not always have been the very top clubs there, but they usually won something, a trophy or promotion: because they had Milla in the team.

“In terms of pure quality, Roger Milla really belongs among the greater players. If he had been playing in his era for Brazil, that fact would be properly recognised. This is a man who had an international career for 20 years. He is a force of nature. You could sometimes see that he was not a rational force. He often just could not understand why other players could not do the things he found so easy. That was part of his character.”

Milla’s prickly attitude on the pitch earned him the nickname ‘Gaddafi’, but it was exactly this bloody-mindedness and determination that made him stand out. In Spain in 1982, aged 30, he appeared in his first World Cup. Cameroon dropped out after drawing all three group games. Milla hit the post in the first match against Peru and had a goal chalked off for offside that he still insists should have stood. The goalkeeper Thomas Nkono made a rare mistake in their final game which led to Italy scoring; had Cameroon won, they would have gone through at the eventual world champions’ expense. It was a cruel campaign but only served to strengthen Milla’s resolve to shine on football’s greatest stage.

In 1989, after helping Cameroon winthe 1988 Cup of Nations, Milla signed for Jeunesse Sportive Saint-Pierroise in the French colonial outpost of Réunion, a tiny island off the coast of East Africa. There the 37yearold intended to wind down his career. “To finish my career that way seemed idyllic because the football there was African, technical, just like I played,” Milla said. He eased into Réunion life, allowed himself to lose his fitness, engaged in a spot of social tennis and enjoyed himself.

Just before Christmas 1989 Milla was asked to return to Cameroon by his good friend Théophile ‘Doctor’ Abega, another veteran of 1982, for his testimonial game in Douala. A huge crowd was once again under Milla’s spell as he cracked in two blistering goals. The next day the national papers speculated whether their greatest former player, unfit as he was, would be of more use at the upcoming World Cup in Italy than the other fringe players on offer.

Three months on Cameroon had a disastrous African Cup of Nations campaign in Algeria, beating only Kenya in their group. This listless showing caused Cameroon’s leader, Paul Biya, to demand that Milla go to Italy as part of the squad. “He signed a decree, which was brave of the president but a risk,” says Milla. “If I had not been up to standard, he would have taken some of the blame. I felt honoured to come and help my country, I felt on a mission. I knew I was old, but I agreed to participate in the World Cup to show that age is not an obstacle. I felt I could still play, I could still help my country.”

Three years after retiring from international football, the presence of a flabby Milla was not looked upon kindly by his teammates. He underwent an extensive training regime in a bid to lose the excess weight he had gained in Réunion. On the eve of the World Cup he once again showed his masterly touch, scoring twice in training game against Croatian side Hajduk Split.

Milla’s involvement in the opening victory over Argentina was limited, but he came on after an hour of the second match against Romania and, 15 minutes later, he laced a stunning left-footed drive to give the Indomitable Lions the lead. Overcome with delight Milla wheeled away to the corner flag and, all wiry limbs, performed a jig that would soon become familiar. Fans speculated whether or not the brilliant, gleeful celebration was premeditated, perhaps a hip-wiggling makossa, a traditional Cameroonian dance. “It’s not a real dance,” Milla said. “It was an instantaneous manifestation of my joy. It was not at all planned! I just felt like dancing each time I scored. It was the first time ever that I felt like doing that dance.”

Within 10 minutes he had more reason to dance as he notched an even more eye-catching goal with his right foot, ensuring his team’s passage to the knockout stages with a game to spare. They met Colombia in Naples in the next round and, with the scores deadlocked at 0-0 in extra time, the super-sub Milla struck again, out-foxing Andrés Escobar and arrowing a shot past René Higuita. As the flamboyant goalkeeper waved his teammates upfield to equalise, he received a pass near the halfway line and Milla picked his pocket before rolling the ball in to make it 2-0. The win sparked wild celebrations in Cameroon and across Africa — it was the first time a country from the continent had made it through to the last eight of the World Cup.

Against England, Milla entered the fray after Cameroon had gone a goal behind to David Platt’s header. He soon won a penalty, chopped down by Paul Gascoigne; Emmanuel Kunde converted. Then Milla was the wall in a one-two with Eugene Ekeke, who chipped Peter Shilton. But two Gary Lineker penalties turned the game back England’s way. “It was a very special tournament,” Milla said, “but it could have been even more special if luck had been on our side.”

Nonetheless, his achievements in those three weeks remain indelible. Cameroon didn’t just get to the quarter-final; they also made the world take African football seriously.

The article was first published by The Blizzard in June 2014

Wimbledon: The art of returning a serve

There was a beauty in Sir Andy Murray’s straight-sets victory over Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon men’s singles final that elevated it above a one-sided affair that might live short in the memory. It was in Murray’s plan to nullify the Canadian’s most potent weapon – a monster serve – with artfully effective responses, and it worked to perfection.

Raonic had averaged a colossal 23 aces per match on the way to the final. So to prepare against the 6ft 5in machine, No 2 seed Murray pored over performance data of his opponent and endured hours of 5ft 10in assistant coach Jamie Delgado serving at him from well inside the baseline, in an attempt to replicate Raonic’s devilish speed and elevated delivery. As a result, he managed to limit the ace count to eight in their Centre Court clash. Murray hit seven himself.

The most telling statistic in the final was that Raonic won just 67 per cent of the points on his first serve, dwarfed by the champion’s 87 per cent. Exclusive Hawk-Eye data, commissioned by The Telegraph and Jaguar, shows that Murray’s reaction time in processing information, moving and returning his opponent’s quickest serve of 147mph was a mere 0.577 seconds. Murray won the point, too

.Data obtained exclusively from Hawk-Eye highlights how Murray’s positioning to receive serves at Wimbledon has changed drastically over the years: he has shuffled back over a metre and a half to tackle a first serve. In his first appearance at The Championships, in 2005, he hit his return on average just 13cm behind the baseline whereas last year it was 143cm (and in 2013, the first time he won, it was 175cm). For second serves, it has evolved from 34cm inside the baseline to 70cm, over double, suggesting a desire to be more aggressive.

Only Andre Agassi of recent Wimbledon greats has a greater percentage of points won when returning than Murray. “It’s a constantly changing process,” Murray, the world No 1, tells The Telegraph when asked how his serve responsiveness has improved and evolved throughout his 12-year professional career. “A lot of it is just down to experience; as a player who has been around on the tour for a long time, you just do learn to rely on your instinct to make a split-second decision of which way to go. Having said that, I do put a lot of time and effort into studying my opponent’s serving, to see if there are any patterns or routines they have that might help me stand a better chance of hitting a strong return.”

Think and you’ll miss it

A tennis court is 78-feet ( 23.77-metres) long, and almost anyone who is able to see that far can, visually at least, react to a serve – it takes around 200 milliseconds. “The difficulty arises in the second stage of the service return,” says Frank Partnoy, the American scholar and author of Wait, the acclaimed study of decision-making. “The remaining period of, say, 300 milliseconds is the time players have to react physically. Most of us can barely adjust our rackets by a few inches.

“It is a largely unconscious physical reaction. It has to be, given the speed of the ball. There is not enough time to consider spin or angle,” Partnoy adds, writing in the Financial Times on the eve of the 2012 Wimbledon Championships. “Conscious contemplation takes at least half a second, so anyone who even tries to think about how to return a shot will end up helplessly watching the ball fly by.

“On the other hand, tennis involves a range of sophisticated and creative responses. Ideally, a player should react to both the placement and trajectory of an incoming ball. The position and movement of an opponent are also crucial. Great tennis returners respond to the information cascade of an incoming ball as if they had taken time to process it consciously, even though we know that is not possible.”

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell notes the late American tennis player-turned-broadcaster Vic Braden’s uncanny ability to predict when a server was going to fault, a moment after the ball had been tossed in the air. Similarly, excellent tennis players determine where a serve is going significantly earlier than those of a lesser standard, through tell-tale signs and sheer practice.

American author Geoff Colvin, in Talent is Overrated (2008), references an experiment where the eye movements of a group of tennis players – some good, and others less so – were tracked when shown films of serves. “Average players focused on the ball,” he writes. “But in the brief period between the start of the serving motion and the moment when the racket hits the ball … the best players were not looking at the ball. They were looking at the opponent’s hips, shoulders, and arms, which foretold where they would hit the ball.”

“The return of serve is widely acknowledged as the most poorly practised skill of our sport,” Dr Machar Reid, Innovation Catalyst at Tennis Australia (TA), tells The Telegraph. “Nevertheless, with modern tracking data, a player can know more about a server’s tendencies to each court and in specific game situations.”

He should know; the leading sports scientist, formerly an elite coach who worked with Greg Rusedski and Li Na, heads up TA’s Game Insight Group (GIG) alongside American data scientist Dr Stephanie Kovalchik. For five years their team, which includes eight other researchers and 10 doctoral- and masters-level students, has analysed the most advanced data in men’s and women’s tennis, including tracking data from Hawk-Eye systems and automated data capture from match broadcasts.

Reid says the best players can draw insight from the “contextual features of a point or situation” and help them “understand what opponents are most likely to do based on their strengths, weaknesses, point score, previous serves, etc”. Additionally, intent can be informed by the “kinematic features of a player’s service action”. “These are largely imperceptible differences associated with players,” Reid continues, “where they are standing, through to the magnitude of trunk rotation, or the characteristics of the toss. The game’s most elite-level servers are able to maintain kinematic consistency across serves.”

Agassi, winner of eight majors including Wimbledon in 1992, lost his first three matches against Boris Becker. And then he noticed a tiny tell-tale sign when his German rival was serving which helped him triumph in 10 of their remaining 11 encounters. The giveaway? Becker’s tongue, the American later revealed; it would point towards where he was intending to hit the serve. “Every player has different indicators,” says Murray, “and a lot of the guys on the tour are very good at disguising them, so it’s become more difficult to use them as an effective way of reading serves.”

Yet an effective and brilliant response to a serve is crucial, Kovalchik says: “The serve return is involved in more than 60 per cent of points – fewer than 40 per cent end with the serve, through aces or double faults – and 15 per cent of all points are decided on the actual serve return. Moreover, based on our research, we have found that men who use the most effective serve return shots can increase their chance of winning a return point by 15 percent on average.

“Because the serve is the most powerful shot in the game, the serve return is its counterpoint by necessity. The more a player can do with the serve return, the better they set themselves up in the rally and the greater opportunity to take away the serve advantage during a rally.”

The average speed of first serves at the 2016 Wimbledon Championships was 116.5mph in the men’s competition, while the second serve was 97.3mph, according to GIG’s research, making it the quickest of the four Grand Slams – compared to 114.5mph at Australian Open; 113.7mph at US Open; and 112.6mph at French Open.

“For a 110mph serve the typical reaction time is 0.63 seconds,” Kovalchik notes, and points out that the speed is calculated at the point of service, yet is significantly slower when it arrives at the receiver.

GIG counts that men employ 25 different forehand returns and 20 on the backhand; the women use 31 types of forehand replies, and also 20 backhand. The distinctions depend on location, shot shape and speed, but “the more players can do to hit to the margins of the court, the fewer options they leave the server if the points goes to a rally,” says Reid. “More than ever before, as serves have got bigger, there is also a need to be really physical on the return.

At one with your racket

Technology is assisting that return-serve physicality, and “modern rackets help players hit harder, because the ball comes off them quicker than ever before, and they are more stable and therefore more powerful,” says Andy Catchpole of HEAD, Murray’s racket manufacturer. He tells The Telegraph that the champion’s customised racket – weighs in at just over 300 grams, about the same as a football.

Catchpole says that Murray’s racket, made of graphene which is six times lighter than steel and 200 times stronger and tweaked in-house at HEAD “to a minuscule of a gram”, is geared for stability. “On a first serve, if it is coming at you at about 125mph, you want a very stable racket behind the ball. [Modern technology] hasn’t generated that much more power for the players on the serve … you’re trying to feed off the pace the ball that’s coming to you.”

Defend or attack?

Allen Fox, a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in 1965 who has a PhD in psychology, tells The Telegraph that “the serve return is the second most important stroke after the serve itself” and advises players to “psych yourself up to feel aggressive, so you will be more likely to throw your weight forward at impact”.

The American author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match continues: “If your opponent has a strong serve, the most dangerous mental trap you can fall into is to just try to get it back. When you do this you are not only less likely to get it back, but you are also more likely to immediately start chasing the ball into the corners as your opponent takes the offensive.”

Tim Henman, the former British No 1, agrees that a powerful response to the serve is most effective – especially at Wimbledon – and marks out his old American rival Agassi as “one of the best returners” in history. “Andre stood very close to, and sometimes inside, the baseline. He was able to pick the ball up very early, and never took a step back,” the 42-year-old Jaguar ambassador tells The Telegraph.

“Andy Murray, who is also one of the best returners in the game, has a different technique to Andre: he stands a long way back and moves forward, and he split-steps, a bit like a goalkeeper in a penalty shoot-out,” Henman says. “Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic tends to hold his ground more and then react depending on serve, and Roger Federer is probably slightly less aggressive but is good at getting the ball back in play.”

Murray himself says of his style: “The split-step is an incredibly important element of the return of serve; it enables to you push off in either direction depending on where you think the ball is heading. Tennis players can move forward and attack the ball, which enables us to anticipate a little bit better than a goalkeeper who can only move along his line. I like to attack my returns a little bit more than most, which is probably why it looks so aggressive when I do it.”

During the upcoming Wimbledon fortnight, the British public will be willing on the 30-year-old, who received a knighthood in Queen Elizabeth II’s most recent New Year’s Honours list, to achieve a third men’s singles title. If Murray does go all the way once more, you can guarantee that the artistry, effectiveness and his peerless ability to respond to a serve will be at the beating heart of the successful defence.

This article was first published by The Telegraph in June 2017

Forget about union and league – sevens is the fittest form of rugby, as I found out

Well-lubricated, fancy-dressed revellers in the notoriously riotous South Stand will inevitably be targeted by cameramen when the 42nd edition of the Hong Kong Sevens kicks off this Friday. Forget the wig-wearing, beer-swilling ‘legends’ at the sport’s mecca, though; the real heroes are the players themselves. And, boy, do they deserve the utmost respect for their commitment to putting on an entertaining show.

That’s because, of all the various games one can play with an oval ball, I can vouch that sevens is far and away the most physically demanding, having spent an afternoon training and toiling with members of the high-flying England team at Twickenham.

Don’t believe me? For a second opinion just ask Sonny Bill Williams, arguably the world’s greatest ever multi-sport athlete. Or how about the raft of other megastars from 15-a-side rugby who tried, and failed, to keep pace ahead of last August’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, when sevens made its Games bow?

It’s absurd to regard Williams – a two-time Rugby World Cup winner, occasional professional heavyweight boxer (unbeaten in seven fights), and former rugby league international – as not fit enough to master any sport. But it took over six months of brutal graft to complete his transition to sevens; and even then he only just got the nod to be part of New Zealand’s 12-man squad in Brazil.

Other stellar names of the longer version of the game, including Quade Cooper, Bryan Habana, and Nick Cummings, missed out Olympic selection by some distance, having fluffed their auditions. In the pre-Rio tournaments they featured in on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the talented trio were made to look as though they were running in slow motion, or “hitting the fudge” as it’s known on the circuit.

Williams was 30 – and therefore still at the peak of his considerable sporting powers – when he announced within weeks of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time, in late October 2015, that he was giving sevens his full attention and eyeing a podium finish in Rio. His headline-stealing switch exploded the sport’s profile, and when the 33-cap All Blacks centre made his Sevens Series debut last January, in Wellington, he was expected to sparkle immediately.

There was one signature high-risk, out–of–the–tackle offload which led to the winning try for his team in the final against South Africa; but there were two similar attempts which were costly errors. Moreover, Williams was obviously struggling to match the fitness of his new teammates and lagged behind play despite only being afforded limited game time. That his initial performance was so incredibly disappointing surprised many viewers, though it shocked neither those in the know, nor the hardened players. “I left my lungs out there on the pitch,” he offered in a pitch-side interview with an embarrassed, haunted look.

In April last year, at the Paris Sevens, I spoke with George Gregan, the most-capped Australian Test player and HSBC Sevens Series ambassador, about Williams’ fitness struggles. “Sonny’s lost about five kilograms to get himself ‘sevens fit’,” the legendary scrum-half said. “Sevens fitness is on another level. You’ve got to have that ability just to start a match at a really high intensity and speed level, and finish a game the same way – that’s not easy. After 90 seconds you pretty much know that you’re going to reach the lactate threshold, and then you’ve just got to deal with it, hang on, trust your technique and have the mental resolve to get through it. That first game of sevens hits you like no other experience you’ve had before.

“It’s all about VO2 max [the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise], and the ability to work at a really high heart rate. Some people are predisposed to having a good VO2 max, but sevens is no place for a plodder. Top players can perform quickly, with a high level of skill and accuracy, and then repeat it, and deal with the stresses of being fatigued – that’s what different to 15-a-side rugby and makes sevens a unique sort of fitness.”

It was only on the eve of the Olympics, some seven months after Wellington, that Williams was confident that he had finally reached the requisite standard. “The fitness levels are [now] up where they should be for sevens,” he said before suffering a long-term injury in his first game of the competition, cruelly. New Zealand finished outside the medals, in fifth, and with Williams’ Olympic dream shattered there was no surprise when his return to the 15-a-side variant was confirmed soon afterwards (after all, there’s a British and Irish Lions tour for the gong-hungry star to contest this summer).

James Rodwell leads a media team on a sevens training day
James Rodwell leads a media team on a sevens training day

Williams’ sevens travails were at the front of my mind when I rather sadistically signed the waiver form to participate in a training session with three of England’s top players – James Rodwell, Philip Burgess, and Ruaridh McConnochie, who all won Olympic silver medals with Team GB – at the Rugby Football Union’s headquarters in late March.

As I tugged on my workout gear (which had helpfully shrunk in the wash, making it skintight – perfect!) in Changing Room Five, located in the bowels of the stadium, I thought: “If sevens fitness had turned the lights out on Sonny, how dark is this experience going to be for me? Besides, any ‘gas’ I once possessed has long emptied since I last played rugby, some dozen years ago. These days I possess the turning circle of a ferry.

Wafting away the smells of nervous energy emanating from the loos, our group was ushered to the gym, where Rodwell, Burgess, and McConnochie greeted us, grinning. “We want to give you guys an idea of what we do on a day-to-day basis, with the aim of being the best athletes we can for the Sevens Series, which finishes here at Twickenham in May,” started 6’5” Rodwell. “We can’t do the full-contact rugby training with you, so we decided the best thing to do was put you through a bit of fitness.”

Following a 15-minute warm up – hamstrings and legs; upper body and shoulders; and some foam rolling – Rodwell, the most capped England sevens player of all time, explained with a smirk that we would be going outside, on to the hallowed ground, to perform the ‘Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test’. This is effectively the old-school bleep (or beep) test: run out 20 metres to a cone, turn and sprint back, and beat the beep; but this version has a five-metre run-off area and 10-second pause between the gradual speed increases. Two strikes and you’re out.

Oliver Pickup (bright T-shirt and blue shorts) during the Yo-Yo challenge
Oliver Pickup (bright T-shirt and blue shorts) during the Yo-Yo challenge

“As England players we do this every few weeks,” said red-headed Rodwell, “and basically if you don’t reach level 19 – or a pace of 19 kilometres per hour – then you’ll be forced to do it the following week, and made to undergo extra fitness sessions to catch up. Yo-yos are fantastic for acceleration, speed and endurance – all vital for sevens.”

Tom Mitchell, England’s captain and playmaker, currently holds the Yo-Yo record, McConnochie told me; just before Christmas, he managed to hit level 22. “My best is 19.5,” the 6’3″ 25-year-old back revealed. “I really want to make 20 – that’s the golden mark – but it’s always the shorter players, like Mitch [5’10”], who do well at this, because they can turn more easily.”

I lined up alongside six other journos. The first few rounds felt fairly comfortable; then the pace quickened, and our first elimination came at 14.3. By 16.1, with a taste of blood in the back of my mouth and my legs beginning to wobble, I “hit the fudge” and was dismissed. Considering it was the first – and most likely last – time I had graced the venerated Twickenham turf, I was satisfied to finish a reasonable third in our press party.

I was still trying to catch my breath when beanie-hat wearing Burgess pointed us back through the stadium to the gym, where the 28-year-old forward had mapped out a gruelling eight-station circuit. “Highlights include the TRX row, the prowler push, the sled pull, and medicine ball slams,” he said. “You’ll buddy up and it’s not full out; you will have 30 seconds on, with 30 seconds off, but supporting your mate. Encouragement is key.

“One circuit is just four minutes of work, so give it everything. A game of sevens is only 14 minutes long, so we need to give it our all in these sessions, and make sure there is no ‘comfort zoning’, as we call it.”

The exercises were as hellish as one can imagine. My Sonny Bill Williams moment of extreme fatigue and inelegance arrived as I grunted and shunted the heavy duty ‘battle ropes’. “Good form is better than repetitions,” Burgess shouted to me across the gym. Cheers, Phil.

Oliver hits the fudge
Oliver hits the fudge

We only had time to finish one circuit, thankfully, but Rodwell said that he and his teammates would normally push on and complete three before hitting the showers. “We train four days a week, with Wednesday our recovery day, when there is an option to have a soft-tissue massage at the Lensbury, our team base,” he continued. “Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are typically lighter training sessions compared to Mondays. The rugby will still be really hard, but the weights won’t be as heavy.

“On Mondays we have a speed session first thing, and then we will go straight into the gym for a weights session. From there we will go back out to the pitch to do some skills, all before lunch. And in the afternoon we will do a full-pitch session for about 90 minutes – it’s a mixture of set plays we want to work on and the full-on smash, which is part of rugby.”

I didn’t see an oval ball all afternoon, and left Twickenham shattered, though with an even greater respect for the super-fit England sevens players.

Ahead of Hong Kong, Amor’s team is second, behind South Africa, in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings, after six rounds. The tenth and last stop is back at Twickenham on May 20 and 21 – and tickets are still available. It will be a grand day out, especially if England, who haven’t won at Twickenham since 2009, are still in contention. Whatever the case, the action on the pitch is sure to be more entertaining then anything you spy in the stands.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in April 2017

Hollywood moment beckons for US rugby sevens stars

Under English head coach Mike Friday, the Eagles’ fortunes have been transformed and the United States are now genuine contenders in a landmark summer for the sport of rugby sevens

Hollywood producers love an unlikely sporting success story, and if the USA men’s sevens team manage a podium finish at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, when the discipline makes its Games debut in August, there is every chance it will be given the full silver-screen treatment. But before the scriptwriters feel compelled to take up their pens, they will be watching with interest to see if the USA prove their worth at the home leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Las Vegas.

The side’s straight-talking head coach, Mike Friday, the ex-England sevens captain who transformed his country’s and then Kenya’s fortunes before taking the American gig a year and a half ago, is not a man prone to flights of fancy, and knows his team must up their game if they are to challenge the established elite. However, when asked about who would play him in the prospective blockbuster movie, he quickly replies, with a grin: “Tom Hardy, hopefully.” It would be a good fit.

Friday was approached by USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville – once England’s youngest XV-a-side captain – just over 18 months ago, after the team finished the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2013-14 in a disappointing 12th place. Melville, who knew Friday when the pair were director of rugby and player at London Wasps respectively 16 years ago, was clear in his demands.

“Melville said: ‘We have to qualify for the Olympics.’ There was no ‘can we’,” recalls Friday, who had taken Kenya to fifth in the world rankings. “I was interested in the role, and took the job because for me life is all about challenges and trying to help the underdog realise its potential. I’ve always been interested in the USA; the players have got the right athletic ability, but I was intrigued as to why they were not performing as well as their talents suggested they should be.”

The 43-year-old former scrum-half found that with his old mucker Melville as boss it meant there was “less friction” and he was trusted to work his magic.

American sports fans are famous for their number-crunching, however, and those that did “the math” were doubtful that the Eagles could gain a coveted berth at the Olympics, at least when Friday took charge. “They love a stat, the Americans, and they had worked out that we had less than a 10 per cent chance of qualifying for Rio,” Friday says.

“They reckoned that Canada – our main regional rivals – had a 90 per cent chance of beating us, all the time, and that there was no way we would win against the top four in the Sevens Series… stern odds.”

In May, at the concluding London leg of the last HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the USA took away the main trophy, and were the best team of the weekend by some distanc

Winning feeling: Highlights of the Eagles’ maiden Sevens Series title in London last year

In the final they trounced Australia 45-22, though in the cup semi-final against hosts England they were particularly dominant, winning 43-12. It was the country’s maiden title, sparking jubilant scenes, and in the process they claimed sixth place in the final standings. Not bad for Friday’s first season in charge.

There was even better to come. Two months later, in Cary, North Carolina, that new-found confidence helped the USA defeat Canada 21-5 to secure qualification for Rio. Despite the success, and achieving the target he was employed for, Friday is unsatisfied, typically. “I should be really happy, as we are progressing and moving forward,” he says, teeing up the “but”…

“Those missed chances really frustrate me, because I expect and want more for the team.”

He is not the only one. “After winning in London, USA Rugby and the public expect us to be winning every tournament now,” Friday says. “And that has brought a different type of pressure for the boys. Previously they were not used to making quarter-finals regularly, and so far this season we have struggled at key, high-pressure moments. We need to be more technically and tactically accurate at these times. And I’m not resting until we get it right.”

Back in summer 2014 there were serious issues to overcome, according to Friday, including that psychological naivety.

“They were rudderless, in terms of direction. The culture and environment drastically needed to change. There was a huge tactical gap in terms of what the players knew and what they needed to understand, mostly because – unlike in England, New Zealand, Australia and so on – the players didn’t pick up the basic rugby skills when they were younger, having concentrated their efforts on American football, basketball or baseball. So we spent a lot of time educating the players, on the pitch and in the classroom, too.”

And then there were more stats to contend with. “It’s symptomatic of American sports, but athletes are so driven by their individual stats, not the team’s stats. There is a big difference, so altering that mindset so they were pulling in the right direction was a challenge,” Friday says.

“Also, I had to teach them that I didn’t want a coach-tell environment, where the coach is always right, which is another aspect of American sports. You want to be challenged, with thought, reason and in the right way.

“On top of that there was a communication breakdown, because of all the different cultures and factions within the side. I never anticipated that there would be tensions, because in every tournament squad of 12 they would be eight or nine different cultures. It was a mirror image of America; there were always cracks in the team because of the perception of how things were said, rather than having real clarity and understanding. They have to be prepared to compromise some of the time.”

On the eve of Friday’s first tournament in charge of the USA, the Gold Coast event in Oct 2014, he identified Madison Hughes as his captain, partly because of his diplomatic skills – “he is a diligent, clever player, and an excellent mediator,” the head coach suggests.

It was a brave call: at just 21, the scrum-half was the youngest player in the team by a distance. Yet it was the playmaker, schooled at top English private school Wellington College (and winners of the Rosslyn Park National Schools Sevens in 2008, with Hughes pulling the strings), who has become the Eagles’ talisman.

The captain: Madison Hughes eyes Olympic glory

Now 23, Hughes is quick to laud his coach. “He’s very straight on, and will tell you exactly how he sees it; that has had a monumental effect on our team, and inspires confidence in us as individuals and as a collective,” he says. “Mike has focused on technical aspects, but, moreover, helped give us a mental edge which was missing at times previously.

“Before Mike took over, the team would think a quarter-final finish would be a good achievement, but that has changed now. He has basically taken the same group of players from 12th to sixth in the space of a year. He has the ability to bring the best out of his players, and to me he is the best sevens coach in the world. I don’t think there are too many out there who would argue with that.”

Most notably Friday, who has used personality tests so the players can better understand themselves and each other better, has helped nurture the talents of two of the quickest players on the Sevens Series circuit, in Carlin Isles, once a sprinter who narrowly missed out on selection for the 2008 Olympics, and Perry Baker, an American footballer.

Speedsters: Pacemen Carlin Isles and Perry Baker speak in May 2015

The pair are not yet the finished article, but they are significantly more polished thanks to their head coach’s guidance. But their late arrival to rugby highlights a challenge which may yet see Friday extend his stay in America after the Rio Games, when his contract is due to expire.

According to USA Rugby there were more than 100,000 registered players across America in the 2014-15 season, including 9,913 at youth and 31,895 at high-school levels. By comparison, almost a million more played American football at high school in the same academic year, ahead of basketball (550,000) and baseball (435,000).

Quick stepper: Perry Baker scores and Madison Hughes coverts after the hooter as USA defeat New Zealand 14-12 in Dubai last December 

With the USA Rugby headquarters located in Boulder, Colorado, at times Friday feels as though he is between a rock and a hard place, trying to realise the country’s potential – in sevens and XVs – and rouse what he labels a “sleeping giant”. That giant could soon be walking tall.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in March 2016

England women’s rugby team are tougher than you’ll ever be

As the Women’s Rugby World Cup gets under way, a chastened Oliver Pickup explains why you should never compare yourself to the players you see on screen

Over the next three weeks the very best female rugby players in the world will squeeze, dip and drive in their quest for World Cup glory. And England, who have been defeated by the New Zealand Black Ferns in the finals of the past three editions, are heavily tipped to still be standing come the August 17 climax at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris.

On Friday, Gary Street’s team will kick off their campaign against Pool A opponents Samoa in Marcoussis, a suburb 20 miles south of the French capital. Like the rest of England’s games, the match will be broadcast on Sky Sports – a sign that women’s rugby is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

And yet, the sight of the ladies flinging about the oval ball will inevitably flick a machismo switch in parts of the male population. Silently and priggishly, these men will puff their chests out and think: I can match up to these female international players.

Fools! Believe me, unless you’re a professional athlete at the top of your game, you can’t.

England Women Rugby World Cup: Could you compete against female international players?

Warming to the task: Oliver stretches with the England team. (PIC: LEWIS MILES)

When I was invited to take part in one of England’s notorious ‘toughen-up Tuesday’ training sessions – which captain Katy Mclean calls a “total beasting” – earlier in the summer, I confess I took to proceedings a certain air of superiority. “I’m bigger, stronger and faster,” I thought to myself, playing a highlights reel from my university team heyday in my mind. “They’re not even professional sportsfolk.”

It didn’t take the England team long to knock such idiotic thoughts out of my head.

The England women’s rugby team is professional in everything but name (and, of course, pay packet, although there are whispers that the sevens team will be rewarded with contracts after the World Cup). For instance, in the past year the squad have spent 112 days on international duty. They juggle their jobs – the squad includes policewomen, teachers, and a vet – with these strenuous commitments to England. Each player effectively spends all her spare time either training or playing rugby.

Indeed, they are backed by a team of 12, including a doctor, three physios and three coaches, one of whom is Stuart Pickering, formerly the strength and conditioning coach at Worcester Warriors. Pickering would became my worst enemy that afternoon.

The training camp started with Pickering ordering the squad to strap on heart rate monitors, which would be constantly studied by the team of physios on the sideline. We were told to take on electrolytes as a mounted video camera was readied to scan the action. I felt a lump in my throat. This was not going to make pretty viewing.

We began the session with some touch rugby, which was mellow enough, and my only key involvement was a rather clumsy dummy run which led to a try for my side.

Next up was sprints. I was ushered out towards where the wingers and fullbacks were standing. “He’s a boy, so he’ll be quick,” I heard someone say. Buoyed by the comment, I kept pace with the speedsters for about the first four try line-to-22 bursts, though tailed off for the final six. I was tactically preserving my energy – or so I told myself.

Pickering barked: “Malcolms next.”

I queried what this involved. Mclean winked at me and said: “Just make sure you keep your head up and your hands on your hips; if you show signs of tiredness we will all have to do it again … so don’t.”

The next 10 minutes were horrific. It transpires Malcolms are a rugby league drill invented by the evidently sadistic Malcolm Reilly, the former Great Britain coach.

You start lying on the ground face down with chin on the halfway line, push up and run backwards to the 10-metre line, go down completely flat on the ground again before pushing up once more and sprinting to the far 10-metre line. Even describing it is an effort.

We had to perform this six times and by the fourth I was blowing hard. During the final repetition I was last by some distance, my legs were burning, and I was already expelling deeply unattractive noises of effort which would come to punctuate my afternoon with increasingly regularity.

On their fronts, their heads turned to watch me complete the set, the women cheered – rather than jeered – words of encouragement. “Suck it up Ollie, imagine it’s the last five minutes of the World Cup final,” shouted fullback Danielle ‘Nolli’ Waterman, daughter of Bath legend Jim Waterman, with a grin. I welcomed their collective mothering, and needed it for what was to come shortly.

While the squad and I completed our Malcolms, on the adjacent pitch the coaches had mapped out the ultimate rugby training circuit. It was killer, as though Martin Johnson had been granted carte blanche in designing the obstacles on a special edition of Gladiators.

England Women Rugby World Cup: Could you compete against female international players?

Group huddle: Oliver and the squad during their session (PIC: GPPICS)

Having just about caught my breath, I buddied up with 28-year-old Mclean. At 5’6″ tall and weighing 11st the South Shields primary schoolteacher is one of the more diminutive of the group, and certainly possesses more modest dimensions compared to me.

Side by side we performed farmers’ lifts, raising weights before running half the pitch and back, twice. Then, with a 30-second breather, we were heaving weights on the end of ropes between our legs. By now my grunts were incredibly loud, and embarrassing next to the silent, efficient Mclean.

On and on we moved, from one challenge to the next, and as my energy levels dipped uncomfortably low it became a delirious blur. There was the plough, which required a low body dip and straight drive (rather than into the ground, as I could only manage in my shattered state), downing stand-up tackle bags, hitting and rolling other bags. And then, once all that was over, it was time for the coup de grâce.

We were tasked with wrestling the rugby ball off each other. I started with it, gripping as hard as I could – but Mclean stole it from me within five seconds. Completely zapped of stamina and spirit, I attempted to wrest the ball back, and simply couldn’t – not to save my life. And I think the skipper was even giving me a chance.

Emasculated and humiliated, I feigned willing to take part in the 40-minute game that followed the circuit training, slipping a bib over my head. As the women, who showed no sign of tiredness, took to the field one of the coaches, Graham Smith, tugged me back and said: “I don’t think you should do this mate … you might actually get hurt.”

He wasn’t wrong. Mightily relieved that I had an excuse to stop the punishment, I silently took my place on the touchline and watched on, humbled.

So as you watch Mclean and her amazingly focused England team-mates charge into their World Cup battle, dispel any thoughts that you, dear boy, could match them. Instead, give them the respect and support that they deserve.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in July 2014