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How virtual team-building worked for England Rugby during the pandemic

As with any business, teamwork is essential to success in rugby, but what happens when that ‘team’ is forced apart? Can it still work? England Rugby Senior Women, also known as the Red Roses, Abbie Ward, Marlie Packer and Claudia MacDonald explain how they pivoted their way through lockdown training, rehab and even motherhood with flexible thinking.

“There was a point, a couple of months in, where the end didn’t really seem to be in sight,” admits Claudia MacDonald, the Wasps and England scrum-half. “We were spending quite a lot of time sat in front of a screen. Even when you were training, it was in front of a computer, literally jogging on the spot.”

But, while she missed their physical presence, the Red Roses collective thinking inspired Claudia. “We were sharing drills that we’d come up with or ideas for gym equipment created with the stuff that we had available to us,” she explains. “People were sharing skill ideas too; kicking balls over telephone cables to practise height, silly things like that.”

Creative team building

Although apart, like businesses the world over, the England team found ways to build their team ethos. “We had to recreate a moment from rugby history,” explains Claudia. “We were split into teams and had to do Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal. Each of us, in our own homes, would film a small part of it and then we mashed it all up together.

“We did a lot of funs things like that, things we never would have thought of doing before – we were all adapting, and collaborating to still continue growing as a team.

“I guess it’s not that different to business,” she continues, “It’s only the ability of the whole team to pull together that produces the final product, it’s just that, for us, the product is a game of rugby.”

Adapting to the virtual world 

Staying fit is one thing, but for Abbie Ward, a lock with England and the Bristol Bears, she had to get fit. “Rehab is difficult enough when you have physios around,” says Abbie, who was suffering from a pelvis/hip injury, “But when you’re taken away from that and you have to do it on your own it becomes a lot more difficult.

“I was very lucky in that my husband soon became my training partner, my physio and my rehab partner.”

Regular Zoom appointments with her team physio would see Abbie’s husband Dave – also a rugby coach – get hands-on with his wife’s rehab. “Our house is much like everyone else’s, we don’t have a physio bed, we don’t have access to lots of tools and stuff,” explains Abbie. “It was kitchen table, baby oil, and a physio on the laptop saying, ‘move her foot like this, move her ankle like this, bend the knee in this way’.

“I’d also be hopping in my kitchen to a camera so the physios could try to pick up any imbalances.”

Learning lessons for the future

So successful was virtual physio, a prime example of adapting to the scenario, Abbie believes it will continue. “I think we can carry on implementing it,” she says. “It cuts down on travel times, you can fit more appointments in, I think it’s made things more efficient.

“We always talk about finding a way on the rugby pitch,” says Abbie. “We ask ‘what is the solution?’, ‘how are we going to get around a certain obstacle or situation?’, and we absolutely took that thinking from our life in rugby to life in isolation.

“We’ve learnt a lot, we’ve adapted and we can try to apply that to everything moving forward. In the end look at the characters [of the team] and it isn’t so surprising.”

A flexible mindset

Marlie Packer, the 74-cap England and Saracens backrow, also had to rehab, but with one even more pressing factor, a pregnant partner.

Accepting she couldn’t control everything was one lesson Marlie, like the rest of us, had to learn. “I remember the 20-week scan and I think I’d had a bit of a set back with my ankle,” she recalls. “We weren’t sure if I needed an injection or not and I wasn’t able to see my physio, and then I wasn’t allowed to go to the scan with Tash.

“When Tash got out of the car that day to walk away [for the scan] I sat and had a little cry,” admits Marlie. “Then she came out and told me the sex, and it was the most amazing day.

“As a rugby player I like being in control of things,” she admits, “but that day vividly sits as one where I had no control of anything, I was in the dark with a lot of things.

“It all turned out great in the end but I couldn’t control what was about to happen in any of the situations, so I just had to suck it up and deal with it.”

Continually adopting a flexible mindset was the only way Marlie could deal with the situation. “You have to be prepared for anything,” continues Marlie, “You might plan for something to happen but that can change, so you have to adapt very quickly and be open to new ways of doing things.”

Find a work-life balance

Work-life balance is another lesson. “Before Oliver, I was all rugby,” she says. “When I get home on a Saturday now it’s not, ‘I’m just going to quickly watch my game’, it’s ‘I’m going to spend time with Oliver’. The balance is really good with home life and rugby and if you’re happy away from rugby you always play a lot better.”

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