In a World Cup of underdogs punching above their weight, arguably the biggest shock was delivered at the Le Touquet Tennis Club on Monday in the highly anticipated England rugby padel tournament.
Padel is a cross between doubles tennis and squash, and has exploded in popularity beyond its traditional Spanish-speaking heartlands. Some reports suggest that it is the United Kingdom’s fastest-growing sport and certainly it has gained a host of converts among the England squad, who train next to a tennis complex where Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz trained in his youth.
Alex Mitchell and Max Malins have been identified as the two most natural talents while head of strength and conditioning Aled Walters uses the sport as active recovery following training sessions.
So on Monday, bragging rights were at stake when a tournament involving players and back-room staff was set up. The combinations of Freddie Steward and Ben Earl along with Danny Care and David Ribbans were highly fancied – at least by themselves – but folded under the pressure. The odd couple of head coach Steve Borthwick and Joe Marler were sent packing by the hooker pairing of Jack Walker and Theo Dan, which did not preclude the latter from starting against Chile, who reached the final.
There they were downed by the dark horses of prop Bevan Rodd and physio Alice Mackenzie. The feelgood underdog story is undone somewhat by Mackenzie’s resume as a professional tennis player who lost in qualifying for Wimbledon in 2004.
“She is an ex-tennis pro, went to Wimbledon,” Ribbans said. “So Bevan Rodd was just there, and she did most of the work. But fair enough, they came out as champs.
“It was all front-rowers in the final, which is slightly worrying for the rest of the squad I must admit, but it was a good day. I’m still slightly bitter about it. Myself and Danny Care were ranked the No 1 pair going into the tournament. There were some slight issues with the court and weather conditions, they didn’t play in our favour.”
The tournament was followed by a barbecue for all the players and staff, who were able to unwind after the hectic 34-12 victory over Japan in Nice. After traversing the length of France for their opening two matches, England now have to make only the relatively short hop over to Lille for their final pool fixtures against Chile and Samoa.
Golf is the other big attraction in Le Touquet, with polo shirts and chinos dominating the bars and restaurants at night-time. There are two main courses, Les Dunes and Les Pins, where Steward shot his first career eagle last week in a round with Jonny May.
The R&R element is almost as important as the training itself, according to hooker Jamie George, who is playing in his third World Cup. “Rugby can be quite all-encompassing,” George said. “The pressures of a World Cup are high, and we are really lucky to be based in Le Touquet, and the people of Le Touquet have been so kind to us. It’s important for us as a team to get together and enjoy each other’s company. Myself and Maro [Itoje] come from a team in Saracens that really see the importance of how close you are off the field bringing you closer on the field.
“There are a lot of other guys in the group from other teams that also believe in that. Steve [Borthwick] is a big believer in that, the coaches are big believers in that, and we want to make sure that we enjoy ourselves while we’re out here. We want to embrace the French culture, and get the competitive juices flowing in other ways, I suppose.”
Le Touquet was not the first choice as a training base for previous head coach Eddie Jones, but it has suited England’s players down to the ground. A sedate seaside town, which is opposite Hastings across the English Channel, it is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Nice and Marseille but with far more freedom than their usual isolated base of Pennyhill Park in Surrey.
After an early evening review following each day’s training, England’s players are given liberty to explore the town where they are frequently spotted cruising around on bikes. Unlike at the 2011 World Cup in Queenstown, New Zealand, there are very few pitfalls for players to fall into even if they went searching for them.
“One of the reasons Steve and the squad have been based where we are is that… sometimes when you’re in camp the pressure can get cabin fever,” prop Dan Cole said. “The ability to go out into town, go for a walk, go to the beach, a lot of players enjoy that freedom and responsibility. Everyone is trusted to go out. It’s a great spot to be in.”