A prior engagement with Crewe Alexandra means he is going to miss the final but Nigel Adkins has closely followed the Rugby Union World Cup.
Tomorrow’s match at Gresty Road will be decided by shots and saves, not rucks and mauls. The tackling, even at its most fierce, would be dismissed as pretty tame stuff inside Twickenham. But Sheffield United’s manager, who counts reading sporting biographies among his eclectic list of hobbies, is convinced footballers can learn plenty from their Australia and New Zealand counterparts.
“I read Graham Henry’s book, the former All Blacks and British Lions coach, about his time time in charge of Wales,” Adkins reveals. “It was fascinating stuff, especially because I take a lot of interest in elite coaches, no matter what code they are in, and the environments they create because, ultimately, its all about the players. What we have to do is give them the best possible chance to perform.”
Adkins has employed a variety of techniques, pilfered, adapted or tweaked from his counterparts in the 15 man code, since being appointed nearly 22 weeks ago. New suits, issued to every member of the senior squad, mirror the strict dress code adopted by Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks while Adkins’ aversion to making bombastic pre-match speeches is a nod to Henry’s belief they are more about theatre than preparing for games. History, or Bramall Lane’s history to be exact, also features of the cirriculum at United’s Steelphalt Academy.
“I’ve been to a lot of rugby clubs,” Adkins says. “They all have a huge pride in the shirt. The All Blacks have instilled it, its almost become a legend of its own, and Stuart Lancaster has done a similar thing with England too; stressing the importance of leaving the shirt in a good place when you pass it on. We all move on at some stage but, when you do hand the shirt on, you have to make sure someone else is proud to wear it.”
“You should always be mindful of the history of the club,” Adkins, who admitted to researching the work of his predecessors’ after taking charge, adds. “Not only the club but also the people who have been here, the folk who, over the years, have worked very, very hard. You should always remember the people who have represented our club and, by doing that, it gives you an even greater sense of pride about who we are.”
Adkins, whose team sits sixth in the League One table after winning seven and drawing three of its opening 15 games, developed his knowledge of both rugby codes - “I love the Challenge Cup” - during a six month sabbatical afer leaving Reading in December last year. Regular visitors to United’s press conferences, however, can testify his search for inspiration is does not just focus on the oval ball. On message, Adkins can come across as a polished, clinical figure with a penchant for soundbites. Once the business of discussing team selection and tactics has finished, though, his guard drops with journalists lured into discussions about television shows - The Hunted and SAS Who Dares Wins are particular favourites - together with South Yorkshire’s tourist attractions.
“It’s a fantastic city and we’re trying to embrace it,” Adkins, who has bought a home in the area, continues. “There’s so much to do. I like walking in the Peak District and the Botanical Gardens. It’s really relaxing and there’s some great stuff to see but there’s also so much more we’d like to do.”
Sport, of course, is his true passion and the quest for new ideas capable of enhancing United’s promotion credentials recently saw Adkins attend a Sheffield Steelers ice hockey game.
“I went with my wife, we’d never been to one before and it was fascinating. You can see what a tough game it is and yet they played after getting back in the early hours following a game in Dundee the night before. It’s was interesting for me to understand how, mentally, they got their heads around the turnaround so quickly and yet kept their dynamics high.”
Adkins’ visit to the Motorpoint Arena laid the foundations for what could prove a valuable relationship, for both United and the Steelers, with his opposite number Paul Thompson.
“We were made to feel so welcome and I had a great chat with Paul afterwards. It was really enlightening for me and I’m sure we’ll have reciprocal talks at some point in the future where we can share and pool our knowledge. I’m sure we’ll meet up again.
“What was really interesting, from my perspective, was watching Paul doing video analysis straight away, trying to nail down how a goal had been conceded, withing minutes of the game ending. Again, it’s all part of accelerating the turnaround.”
Adkins, who could recall Jose Baxter for the fixture with 24th placed Crewe, worked in a variety of roles, including player/coach and physiotherapist, before hugely succesful spells in charge of Scunthorpe and Southampton. Predictably, perhaps, he credits another sporting discipline with developing the drive and determination which could, in May, add a fifth promotion to his managerial CV.
“I’ve always loved my basketball. I used to play it a lot at school and also, above my age group, for a team in a men’s league too. It was tough but great and the things I learned then are also possible to apply now. It taught me, especially competing against people who were much older, how to push myself.”