Expect the unexpected

As the modern game changes, the players are required to evolve. England rugby captain Owen Farrell consistently demonstrates the ability to stay one step ahead, not just during the heat of battle, but also in the wider rugby environment.  

“No rugby game is the same, no week is the same as the last one… you’ve got to be ready for anything.” Wise words from England captain Owen Farrell as the nation prepares to do battle over six gruelling weeks at the Rugby World Cup in Japan this autumn.
 
But then, adapting to sudden and unpredictable change sits at the heart of the sport. The ball itself challenges every player with its seemingly random bounce and awkward shape. To be a world-class competitor in this sport demands expert decision making – but also the ability to take the unpredictable in your stride. 

Prepare, but don't fixate

“Rugby’s a massive game of momentum, and it can get flipped on its head in a single moment,” says Farrell. Professionalism demands that players prepare meticulously – even to the point of weighing up how various climates and altitudes might affect the behaviour of the oval ball. But being able to adapt in a split second to a changing situation is what sets world-class performance apart. The ability to capitalise on unexpected shifts in momentum can often result in stunning success.
 
“I believe, if you go into a match with a strategy and some preparation as to what might happen, and maintain a state of clear-mindedness, you can adapt to anything,” Farrell explains. 
 
And while the England captain needs a heavy dose of foresight when anticipating possible adaptions by opponents, too – ‘clear- mindedness’ is a vital attribute in the international test arena, where the speed and intensity is so high. 
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‘I believe, if you go into a match with a strategy and some preparation as to what might happen, and maintain a state of clear-mindedness, you can adapt to anything.’

Owen Farrell, England Rugby Captain

Stay open-minded

Rugby union is a peculiarly strategic game – just think about the analytical approach pioneered by coaches such as Sir Clive Woodward. But it’s also punctuated by moments of sheer aggression and speed. When faced with a variety of scenarios, Farrell has the ability to pinpoint moments to attack and defend, as well as when to express pragmatism.
 
“I’d say it comes down to two things,” he says. “Identifying [the scenario] – and then what you’re going to do about it. There won’t be just one way, there will be many solutions.” 
 
Farrell’s understanding of his need to take on board advice and direction from others in executing those countermeasures also show his leadership and adaptive qualities outside those split-second decisions. “It comes down to open-mindedness,” Owen suggests. “I enjoy telling people what I’ve learnt myself and getting things back from other people – it’s not just me putting everything on them and hoping they sit there and listen. I’d hope that I’d never put my opinion out there and think: ‘this is what we’re going to do, and that’s final.’ I’d always be open to discuss it, and I enjoy someone trying to pick it apart.”

Playing the long game

Rugby players have had to adapt to long-term changes in the sport, not just in-game events. The laws of the game are complex and change each season. Even the meat of the sport has shifted. In 1955, for example, the average rugby player was 84.8kg. In 2019, it has increased to 105kg. At around 90kg, Farrell is below average; but as a back, he’s bigger than many forwards were just a generation ago.
 
Season to season, Farrell has adjusted his technique, not only to help him compete at the same level, but also to add longevity to his playing career. His injury record is remarkably robust considering the strenuous nature of the sport and his own tough-tackling style. This learning mentality and awareness of the bigger picture also helps focus whole groups of players on adapting their underlying game to stay at the highest level.
 
“If you’re all genuinely  trying to get better and improve, it brings you closer together as a team,” he says. Failing to adapt as laws, players and styles evolve is a recipe for disaster. 
Owen Farrell breaks a tackle during a Rugby World Cup warm-up game
Owen Farrell breaks away from Welsh tacklers during a World Cup warm-up game earlier this summer

Switching things up

Farrell’s father, Andy, famously crossed codes, adapting his play from League to Union. But even within one code, rugby players have to shift from the intensity of an international test match to a regular club game, still considered competitive, but without quite the same pressure. Individual players react differently to this change in environment, and for a captain that means managing changing team dynamics as players make the move between their clubs and the national side.
 
Farrell himself enjoys the change of scenery. “It’s enjoyable to go from one to the other, it keeps things very fresh and exciting, whether it’s coming back to the club or coming into international stuff,” says Farrell. “You can’t wait to rip in with the group. It is different but they’re both really enjoyable.” It’s a great example of the importance of an open and adaptable culture around the team.

Culture is not fixed; values are

Changes in personnel and injuries will shift the balance of a team. There might even be disputes and disagreements. These are all natural in professional sport, and a team’s culture needs to continuously adapt to accommodate both progress and setbacks – but it’s always maintaining shared values and objectives that drive both team and individuals forward.
 
“I believe if your foundations are in place, first and foremost, and you’ve got that common goal that you’re all going to strive for it’s easy for people to fit in,” says Farrell. “The main thing is that you’re all pulling in the same direction, you all have that clear goal that you’re heading toward.” 
 
Farrell’s club side, Saracens, are known as ‘the Wolfpack’ – an apt description of the bond shared by the team as they look out for one another and carry each other forward. Every England fan will be hoping the team carry that same ability to adapt changing environments and to seize new opportunities in Japan over the next six weeks.