If ever there was a theme running through conversations with rugby coaches during the lockdown, it was their collective frustration and the spirit of improvisation borne out of it.
Coaches are not by their nature ones to sit idly on their sofas for too long. When the opportunity to impart knowledge to players appears blocked, as it was by the Covid-19 restrictions, it was only natural for them to find different ways to get the job done.
Mike Pettman did that. The New Zealander and former student of Joe Schmidt at Palmerston Boys’ High, was recruited by Munster Rugby as the province’s Technical Skills Development Coach and as the job title suggests, his mission is to impart the fundamentals of skills development and improve technical and tactical ability amongst players, primarily aged between 14 and 19, but also all the way up to Johann van Graan’s senior squad.
To Pettman, the lockdown was a serious spanner in the works. Previously on the New Zealand women’s sevens coaching staff, he had set up sevens programmes at Munster and was set to take a men’s squad to a tournament in Amsterdam when the lockdown was introduced.
“I’m thinking and shaking my head at what could have been, particularly with that sevens programme,” Pettman said in an interview with the Irish Examiner.
“I’ve taken this time to really try and grow and challenge myself in a few different areas. I’ve talked with Stephen (Larkham, Munster senior coach) and Wig (Graham Rowntree, Munster forwards coach) and tried to get uncomfortable. You’ve got to set a good example. You can’t preach and not back it up, so I said, ‘right, this my time’.”
Pettman, who had played for Manawatu and NZ Universities before a spell in the AIL in 2002 with Dolphin, is relieved to be back on the training field now. During lockdown, though, as his Cork-born wife Orla took her new Ora Fitness business online, Pettman roped in his kids, five-year-old Maeve and nine-year-old Aibhinn, and went into rugby coaching video production.
“I’ve also done a few skills videos and had to use my kids and that’s been quite cool. My 18-year-old daughter Halley arrived just before the lockdown with her boyfriend Stephen, with intentions to go travelling and they’ve been here ever since. So the boyfriend was also roped into the contact stuff.”
Whatever it takes to get the message across. Pettman makes no bones about the sevens format being front and centre in his thinking.
“Sevens is really my passion, I wouldn’t be big on too much structure. I like to play what’s in front of us so that’s why I naturally leaned to that school development side because it has that technical stuff but also what you do is based on what you see in front of you.”
For a country notoriously slow to adopt the sevens format, that might be seen as a disadvantage but Pettman only sees the opportunity for his teenage target audience.
“That’s the exciting thing, just think how far we could progress Ireland rugby more having had it? It’s always been a question back in New Zealand, why hasn’t Ireland been in Sevens because all the other Six Nations teams have all had those stages and they’ve used it to their advantage.
“There’s definitely an opportunity with sevens being an Olympic sport. Part of my job is to grow the sevens game while we’re here so I have a three-part programme designed starting in schools and then there was a selection of U18 teams that we are going to work with.
“Then we are working with the Munster U18 girls because they’ve got interpros so we’ll work with them for a five-week programme. And then we were going to work with the Munster men’s, taking them to what was going to be the pinnacle tournament in Amsterdam against a lot of international teams, so it would have been really good there because we’ve got good ties now.
“We’ve made that connection with Anthony Eddy from Ireland and Stan (McDowell) from the Ireland women’s. The whole idea was we were going to train against them (Ireland Sevens) as well, so providing opportunities and pathways for even the late developer, the guy or girl who is new to rugby so there is that potential crossover sport stuff as well ...I could talk about it for ages, it’s an exciting space.
“There’s some phenomenal athletes here and the thing I think we're lacking is kind of like working off the ball to make those opportunities. Those little things like catching early so we’re not tucking the ball and it’s predetermined that we’re going into contact whereas if we’re catching early we’ve got three or four options in front of us.
Pettman describes his job as “quality control” so when players sign with Munster, the coaches don’t have to start all over again with the basics. Skill execution under pressure has been a constant pitfall for the senior side at crucial times in recent seasons past so it makes sense to build from the bottom up while also assisting Larkham and head coach van Graan.
“We share the same philosophies and Johann as well, he was saying ‘things have to change if we’re to change Munster’. He was all for the sevens programme going ahead and building it up so he’s good that way.
“When I was in New Zealand, he actually gave me a phone call and said ‘hey, look, this is how it is, if you’re interested we’ll have a chat’. I don’t know if Joe (Schmidt) tapped him on the shoulder but I thought, straight off the bat, that was pretty good of him. It was pretty class.”
Now he’s here, Pettman hears the clock ticking.
“It’s baby steps at the moment, we’re just seeing small progressions. We want to get to the stage where the athlete can identify their own strengths and weaknesses and then how to actually develop that further and come up with their own primers, their own measures and look after themselves. We can work with them, interact, by identifying what they have done wrong in a video clip, or how they could do it better and then if they can identify it by using the technical language we’re trying to install in them then we know they’re learning and how much they know.
“That’s ultimately where I want to get with these athletes. We’re not quite there at this stage but we’re building and this Covid’s been awful in delaying things but my contract’s for three years and then we’ll look at it again. I’d hope to see a good improvement in that time but if I was being completely honest, skill improvement is lifelong so you probably get the results in a four or five-year cycle.”