Locker room reflections | Byron Tibbitts, England Senior Mixed Captain
On the surface, the 2017 Senior Touch Championships don't really count. It's not a FIT competition and the caps don't count in the official tally. It's really just a friendly tournament designed to allow those oldies not playing in the European Premiership Permit competition a chance to play some decent Touch this year and give them a reason to keep some of the timber off before Euros 2018.
All absolutely true.
And all totally misguided perspectives.
Although true that the caps are not recognised by FIT, and the tournament was incredibly friendly (Scottish Touch put on a fantastic comp, and I have got to know and really like a lot of the opposition players in our division not to mention amongst the other England squads), the moment I stepped on the field in England Touch kit again I realised what STC 2017 really was. It was an opportunity for hundreds of passionate, committed, athletic and masochistic men and women to satisfy their drive to compete, to strive, to represent their country in a sport they love no matter the legitimacy of the caps. And yes, to defy the stigma of being a 'senior'!
As England Senior Mixed we had a good track record in Europe. We have been in every gold medal final in a European comp since the beginning, and no player in our team could remember losing more than one match in a row in an England vest. In hindsight that probably made us very complacent. Complacent in our approach to tournament prep and in our approach to the first games of the tournament.
We were short-staffed, only held one training session prior to the tournament, and introduced four new players to the squad in the process - two without any international experience. This wasn't out of arrogance - we all have busy lives, and many of our squad were training with Permit teams and would have struggled with more training dates. It was a conscious decision to keep the training load lighter.
But it seems we were the only team in our division to take this approach. And it showed on day one.
The other teams in our division were Ireland and Wales. Both competitive teams, both incredibly passionate teams. Ireland, sore from a loss to us in a drop off in the gold medal final of the 2016 European Championships, were no doubt gunning for us.
Day one saw us play first Ireland then Wales. Going into game one we had a brief of 'identify what style/patterns/policies they are playing' so that next time around we could counter them. We lost 6-1. Not a pleasant experience. With no attacking platform, we simply couldn't score.
We followed this with a 7-4 loss to Wales, a team we had never lost to before. Ever. It turns out Wales were very strong this year, thanks to a particular style and some key new recruits. They went on to beat Ireland in their first game against them too.
The mistake we had made was to wait to see what those teams brought to work out how to counter it instead of executing a game plan that played to OUR strengths and gave them no chance to breathe, let alone play what they wanted to play. We will never make that mistake again as long as I am captain.
So, two losses in a row to teams we had beaten less than a year previous. I can safely say it was the most humbling and least enjoyable day of tournament Touch I have ever played for England.
Those games were not for naught though. We have a very good coach in Martin Wright, with a very analytical eye. Video analysis of those games highlighted certain exploitable weaknesses in opposition policies and players, not to mention key areas where we could make tweaks. A systematic overhaul of our line defence positioning and some revisions of our attacking platform later, we felt slightly better prepared for day two.
We knew we would grow throughout the tournament. That was the point. Personally though, I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little concerned about whether we would be able to grow fast enough to save some face.
We played Ireland again first thing on day two. Lost. This time only 7-4, and as a team we came off smiling this time despite it being the third loss in a row. That was a major momentum shift.
By the time we faced Wales in the afternoon we had some purpose and a style that suited our game, not theirs. An epic score-fest ensued that saw both teams battling for an edge. As it turned out, it came down to who could score the last touchdown before the hooter, such was the end-to-end action. A final score of 11-10 to us, and Wales had their second defeat on their card, having lost to Ireland earlier too.
A short hour later and we had our third game of the day, versus Ireland for the third time. Tired, but with purpose, we sought out the weaknesses we had identified in their line-up and went about clinically targeting them. The most enjoyable game of the competition so far, we took the match 9-6, finally regaining the pride that comes with playing to our potential!
Day three saw us face Wales first thing for our final pool game, and now that both teams had the measure of one another it was another slog, with no eventual winner other than the game itself. 11-11 at full-time, with opportunistic scores from both teams within the final two minutes.
It’s not great relying on maths to make a place in the final, and that’s what it boiled down to for us after our lacklustre start to the tournament. Wales and Ireland had one more game to play which would decide the finals line-up. If Ireland beat Wales by 7 or more scores then we would face Ireland in the final. Wales won. Hence, it was a cold beer for England SMX and a bite to eat in the grandstand while we watched Ireland and Wales slog it out in the unexpected Edinburgh heat of the sunny Sunday afternoon.
While there I got to witness some truly outstanding individual and team performances across the divisions, and the thrilling drop off between Wales and Ireland in the Mixed final that ended up with Wales taking the trophy home was a fitting finale to a fantastic weekend. I was surprised and honoured to be named MVP for the Senior Mixed division in the end too.
Action aside, this competition highlighted some key things to me. Firstly, there is never a context in which pulling on your country’s colours ‘doesn’t really count’. It is a thing of intense pride every time, and it can be a humbling experience when you realise you have not treated it with the respect it deserves. Secondly, that you’re never too old to do something with passion and reckless abandon. I saw enough injured but smiling ‘seniors’ last weekend to support that view. Thirdly, no matter your team’s track record, there is always more to learn. Whether that’s a style of play, a new move, the impact of preconceptions, or simply humility.
Going forward, I’m eagerly anticipating the EFT Premiership Permit competition back up in sunny (hopefully!) Edinburgh in a few weeks’ time when I will be taking the field with the Royals, but also already looking beyond to 2018 and a new campaign with England’s Senior Mixed in which we will take nothing for granted, be better, humbler, hungrier…