Business, Culture Edition An International Career
By: Alan Gaffney • 4 years ago •
I PLAYED JUNIOR LEAGUE RUGBY AS A YOUNG KID AND THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL. OUR COACH IN THE FINAL YEAR, JEFF BALL, REALLY INSPIRED AND INFLUENCED US. TEN OF US FROM THAT ORIGINAL SCHOOL TEAM WENT ON TO RANDWICK, WHERE I ENDED UP PLAYING FOR 12 SEASONS. HE TAUGHT US TO RUN THE BALL, A STYLE I STILL PREFER TODAY (ALTHOUGH YOU DO HAVE TO KICK FROM TIME TO TIME!).
was very fortunate to play with some very good players during that time who went on to play for Australia. We won 6 of the 12 first grade competitions I played.
A few years after I retired from playing, Bob Dwyer rang to offer me a coaching role. He was the Australian coach at the time and there was a great rivalry with Alan Jones. Both were very good at motivating people to play well for them. I learnt a huge amount from Bob, and we had played together back in 1965. The thought of coaching hadn’t even entered my head when Bob called, but it turned out to be an opportune time.
He put me in at Randwick in the fourth grade. There was a lot of depth in rugby in those days even at that level. It was all part of the learning curve, and Dwyer was very, very good at the detail – something he drove into me, and I now do the same to young coaches. We’ve got to provide these talented kids with sufficient detail, not just the big picture, so they can act upon it and optimise what they can do. I don’t think this happens a lot these days.
I coached at Randwick from 1984 to 1996 – 13 seasons. It didn’t worry me who I coached, or what I coached, I just enjoyed it. We came off winning the first grade competition and the next year, I went back to coaching the colts because that’s where I saw I could develop some great kids who subsequently went on to play representative rugby.
In 1985, when Bob asked me to coach the colts after coaching 4 th division, I actually thought it was a demotion. I argued but ended up doing it anyway. No-one knew at the time just who was going to show up: Phil Kearns, Ewen McKenzie, Michael Cheika and Scotty Barker. We made it to the grand final in ‘85 and won it in ‘86. It was under 21s back then, so was a very young side with a lot of potential but perhaps lacking some consistency. It was a learning curve for both the coaches and the players. You have to show respect for everyone around you, no matter what happened in the past, even if you’re the better side – you can be beaten. We learnt that lesson by the ’86 season!
In 1997, I went to the Waratahs with Matt Williams to be the Assistant Coach. I was at work in the city when Matt rang to say he was being interviewed to become the Head Coach and would I stand with him as his attack coach? At the time, I didn’t think Matt had much of a chance, so I agreed without giving it much thought. The next morning, I woke to hear on my alarm’s radio that Matt had been appointed!
I did that for three years until Matt was sacked. As usually happens, the people with him go as well, so I finished up. I intended to go back to club-level rugby at Randwick and help out but I didn’t coach any particular team as it was my son’s last year at high school; so I got to watch him play, which worked out really well.
Then, once again in 2000, Matt was appointed as head coach of Leinster, Ireland. He rang and asked if I’d like to come over. It was again well-timed in my career, although it was only a 3-month deal with not a lot of money involved. We went over to Ireland purely for the adventure, and that 3-month stay ended up being about 11 years.
This period was broken up for a short stint in 2005, when I was offered the position of attack coach for the Wallabies. We started well on the Spring Tour but went through a bad patch with games against the All Blacks and South Africa. We lost several games and were under-strength due to injuries and World Cup preparations.
In fact, we won only one 1 of 4 games on that tour, and after the Wales game, they announced that the head coach was being sacked. That was when I headed over to Saracens FC, London. It’s been a great ride: I spent 5 years in Ireland, then back to Australia, and back again to Europe where I took over as Director of Rugby and Head Coach for Munster – one of the best known European sides who were very successful at the time.
There are a lot of Irish traits in Australia. We have very similar personalities, where we both love our craic and taking the mickey out of each other.
One of the main differences though was that when Australia went professional, they had a number of sports to follow (League, Aussie Rules, Cricket, etc.). The Irish had no-one to follow. They really struggled to come to grips with the transition to professional status. There are really good Irish coaches, but like the players, they also needed help in that transformation period from amateur level. They love to have a good time and a couple of beers and that was a tradition for many years. This is where I think the Australian coaches did help – although we used to be the same! The stakes had always been high, but now, with professionalism, we are less able to get away with behaviour that would have been acceptable a few years ago.
The Irish administrators, coaches and players all had to face the new expectations of professional rugby. There was some resistance, but the progress was completed over a few seasons. They are great bunch of blokes and I never regretted a day I spent with them. Now they’ve really taken the different elements on board and have adapted to professional level rugby.
Coaching in England is a little different to coaching in Ireland. In England, the owners want a fair bit of involvement which doesn’t always work well. The Irish owners tend to stay out of the coaching decisions.
When I started coaching the Saracens in 2006, if a player was displeased with a selection, they might not talk to me directly but instead call one of the directors, who would then talk to me. I tried to stamp that out, but a few years later, it started to happen again. I am more than happy to talk to a player and listen to other points of view but the constant discussions behind the scenes were hard to take.
What I learnt at Munster (2002-2005) was that the selectors tended to pick the better person over the better player. I advise other coaches to be selective in the country and club you work with. Don’t simply go for the sake of going overseas. You and your family have to be happy there. All those personal things must be taken into account. You may have all these ideas about changing the club, but that may not happen, so you need to be content in the club to start with, comfortable at least with their current brand of football. I have seen too many coaching gigs end in tears, which doesn’t help anyone in the end. The clubs have to find the right person and are equally responsible.
Currently I am working with the Australian 20’s with Adrian Thompson as the Head Coach. I’m there to help and challenge the coaches to make them better coaches, have them benefit from my experiences. We cannot just keep going from day to day without challenges. A lot of the drills that I was using in my active coaching days came from Netball that I saw at the AIS. Skills in passing to space rather than a person. I could work with younger players about passing the ball into space rather than to a player, also seen in AFL. I’d love to see more collaboration and learning from coaches of other sports.
I think that the Australian Rugby Union still have to get better at talent identification. I am currently working with Jayson Brewer on the national curriculum which needs reviewing and looking at how we coach the coaches. I think we need to get better at coaching the coaches in the country. You have to also have the resources to challenge the young coaches as they come through. We all need to challenge each other and nobody knows it all. We are losing a lot of talent to overseas opportunities and I would prefer these coaches be provided progression opportunities within Australia.
What I have learnt from coaching in England and Ireland is to respect the local setting. France is a similar situation with some definite cultural differences. Some people have struggled coaching over there – good coaches – and I know Michel Cheka coached there. I don’t think it was his favourite 2 years despite it being a very good team. I think the lifestyle is fantastic but your day job has to be what you want and can work with. There is a significant cultural difference in France where the owners have a lot more involvement in club decisions.
The same goes for Japan where you really have to understand the culture and how it works. For example, the coach will usually have no say in the selection process. Some people have loved Japan and some people have hated it. All I would say to coaches considering going overseas is, do your homework prior to accepting any role and understand exactly what you’re getting into.
Alan Gaffney is a rugby coaching legend, and the current National Elite Programmes Coach for Rugby Australia.His lengthy career has taken him across the world, coaching in Ireland, the UK, Europe, and now returning to pass on his depth of knowledge to future Australian coaches and players.
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