VIDEO: Behind the scenes at Barnstaple before the Devon Senior Cup final
"THIS will be the most prepared we have been all season," says Tom Skelding.
It is Thursday evening, Barnstaple's last training session ahead of the Devon Senior Cup final.
Three days later, in the away team's dressing room at Exmouth, the coach reiterates the point to his players.
"This is the best prepared we've been for a game this season," says Skelding. "We've had three specific sessions all based around this game."
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Barnstaple are underdogs. Not a terrier to Exmouth's Great Dane, but maybe a springer spaniel to a German shepherd.
Kevin Squire, in his last pre-match team-talk as director of rugby, is confident Barum can give them a nip.
"The best 22 players currently playing rugby at Barnstaple are in this room now," he says. "And the best 22 players at Barnstaple are good enough to take on the best 22 players at Exmouth."
He doesn't play down the occasion, but remains calm and in control. Control is the watchword.
"A season's work hinges on this 80 minutes," says Squire. "It hasn't gone our way (this season) but today we can make it go our way because we've got control of everything that's going on out there."
Not quite everything ...
VIDEO: Kevin Squire giving his last ever team talk to Barnstaple RFC:
BACK to a pleasant spring evening on the bank of the Taw at Pottington Road. This is the calm before the cup-final storm.
Kele Taofinu'u, the back-row forward, is first on the pitch, auditioning to become Barum's goal kicker by chipping the ball neatly between the posts.
Luke Berry, who will be kicking in the final, places his tee on the try line and tries to hit the post.
"I aim for the post to get my accuracy right," he says. Ironically, he will inadvertently hit the post with a penalty attempt on Sunday.
Berry has become Barum's main goal kicker this season, following Josh Squire's knee injury in November.
"I have always kicked through age-group rugby when Josh has been injured," says Berry. "I've been Josh's understudy."
Three points in Sunday's final will see him join Squire at the top of Barum's scoring chart for the season.
He joins his team-mates in a huddle where there is only one absentee.
Toby Williamson is in Coventry, winning the level-three award at the national finals for the British Colleges Best Personal Trainer of 2013. The first Barum win of the weekend?
Kevin Squire instructs his players of the basic game plan: "Smash them and look after the ball." He will later explain it is slightly more complex than that.
And the game plan for after the match? "On Sunday night, after we've come back on the bus with the cup, we'll go out and paint Barnstaple red, white and whatever colour we want," says Squire.
He then takes a back seat and chats with Trevor Shaddick, the club chairman; Jackie Jewell, the chairman of the playing committee; and Craig Bulley, the development XV manager.
Skelding and Steve Perry lead the session. It is how it has been all season and how it will be next season, when Squire has gone and the two player-coaches are in joint charge of the first XV.
Squire is fond of both. He has long seen Skelding as his successor, while he sees more of himself in Perry.
Within five minutes of meeting for the first time they were arguing about rugby, he reveals. "That's when I decided I liked him," says Squire.
It is very calm, very quiet. The physical, breakdown work was done on Tuesday. Tonight is for running through lineout drills and attacking plays.
"Tom Skelding leads the lineout," says Sam Roberts, the hooker. "He tells me where to throw it and I try to hit it."
Barum have about 20 lineout calls, with variations on a basic set of plays, each with its own code.
"We do it by numbers and we all should know them," says Roberts. "If you get one person who has forgotten their job, it all goes wrong.
"They're not written down, it's all in our heads. We learn them through repetition."
Roberts has become part of the furniture at Barum, having initially arrived on loan from Cornish All Blacks in 2009.
"It's the longest I have stayed at a club. I wanted to stay because I wanted to play regular rugby," says the 24-year-old, who travels up from Plymouth for training and matches.
If that seems a long way, his understudy this season has come even further – a young man whose accent is more Hannover than Chivenor.
Adrian de Riz, a former Germany under-18 international, is coming to the end of a gap year spent in North Devon.
His team-mate in Germany was Mark Gordon, brother of former Barum captain Phil Gordon, who helped arrange accommodation and work for de Riz.
"I finished school and wanted to do something before going to university," says the 19-year-old. "I have made some friends and it's the perfect finish to have a cup final – I couldn't ask for more."
In a young squad, de Riz is one of a number of cup-final novices. Another is a man who has played in the Championship for Exeter Chiefs and Plymouth Albion.
"The only medals I have had are a National League Two winner's medal with Moseley, a British Universities runners-up medal and a county cup when I was 16 years old in Gloucestershire," says Skelding.
"The final is a new experience for me. As a 31-year-old, to have a brand-new experience in rugby is nice – it keeps you hungry for the game."
The team break up, back to work tomorrow – to tree surgery, building, teaching or covering the local election count for this newspaper – before they meet again on the morning of the cup final.
Leaving the field, they know that, a few final touches aside, everything is in place.
ON SUNDAY morning, as the team bus heads down the North Devon Link Road, the horn starts blaring. Only some orthodox repair work can stop it. Perhaps it is a warning sign that not all will go to plan.
STOPPING for brunch at a pub near Exeter Airport, there are a few signs of emerging nerves in faces and tapping feet.
Spirits are kept high by the presentation of the team's annual awards and a parting gift from the squad to Squire.
IN THE ground, the players grab a few moments basking in the warm sun before preparations are stepped up.
They stretch and run through drills one last time before, 40 minutes ahead of kick-off, squeezing into the changing room for the team-talks.
Squire goes first, calm and composed.
Skelding is next, more fiery, rousing the forwards to be tough at the breakdown, the one area of the game about which he is concerned.
Perry steps forward and quietly adds some technical points. "Stay in the game and we will win it in the second half," he says.
Then Winston James, the captain, bringing the passion: "Exmouth have a swagger and I hate it. It's been a frustrating season and we're going to take that frustration out on Exmouth." And the emotion: "It's Kev's last game. He's not just a coach, he's a friend."
"WE'VE got control of everything that's going on out there," said Squire.
Duncan Fletcher, England's Ashes-winning cricket coach in 2005, used to talk of "controlling the controllables", worrying only about those things you can affect.
In rugby, that might be winning the ball at your set pieces, remaining organised in defence and keeping possession.
A rush of blood to the head of a young forward that results in a red card after just five minutes is an uncontrollable.
"There was nothing we could do about it," says Squire.
"THIS will be the most prepared we have been all season," said Skelding.
The best laid plans of mice and rugby coaches often go awry. One more frustrating twist in a frustrating season.