IN THE team meeting room, there is no escape. The air is thinner when the debate is in another language. Nuance is lost. Humour or wit doesn’t carry, neither the cadence. Expletives are freighted differently. In Cork, you’d tell a lad to shut the f*ck up and stop acting the ghoul but saying that to someone in France is an altogether different thing, far more damning.
Things can escalate rapidly in that scenario, and no one needs that. Far more acceptable to tell someone ‘Tais-toi’, which is basically pipe down or be quiet.
I am into my tenth season of a coaching career, and there is still a place for the hairdryer, though perhaps once or twice a season.
The fascinating piece is how you disappear from everyday life into that coaching bubble and the capacity to be able to assimilate your thoughts and express them in a different language, remaining composed but all the while, get players to understand the urgency of the moment. My appetite for consistent performance is a lot greater than others, I recognise that as a strength and sometimes a weakness. Nowadays I cannot assume that is a given with everyone whereas when I played with Munster that was pretty much standard across the board. There was a huge desire to get better. I cannot assume that these guys’ attitude is the same as mine, and I constantly err with regard to that.
Yet I have to keep coming back to it. La Rochelle’s players had their first taste of silverware six months ago. That changes the rhythms. It’s not the same as learning a skill. The earlier you learn, the easier it is, the more embeddable it is. When you are trying to embed something in a 27-year-old it is tough.
I drive home alone, wondering how many professional players these days go to sleep dreaming of rugby and dream their best dreams scoring wonder tries and kicking winning penalties until they wake up.
I’m wired differently, I accept that.
I’m heading for 46 but fifty years ago on this day, one of the greatest rugby games ever enjoyed took place at Cardiff Arms Park. I wasn’t born but it shaped so much of what I later became. I have watched that Barbarians v All Blacks game enough times to convince myself I was there, savouring every moment. Sid Going, the tackle by Fergus Slattery, kick tennis with JPR Williams, then Phil Bennett back towards his own line. And off it goes. The jink, Williams, Pullin, the straight line by Dawes, the impossible pick up off his laces by Quinnell and, wait, here comes Gareth Edwards steaming up the left wing. ‘Edwards. A dramatic start. What a score’. As Robert Kitson said in the Guardian, the greatest takeaway from Cardiff in 1973? Fill young hearts and minds with enough joy and they will still be fervent disciples half a century later.
I met many of those men afterwards, Bennett, who passed away last year, Edwards, often described as Wales’ finest. England’s blond bombshell, David Duckham, who also passed last week. Many a Cork Christmas morning, that tape cassette went into the video recorder. It never got old. I can recite the commentary to this day. I went to bed those nights dreaming of being Edwards and Bennett in green.
I never played for the Barbarians. The good fortune of Munster being at the business end of the spring, or Ireland touring in early summer rendered it impossible. Hence, getting the call to co-coach them last November with my friend, Scott Robertson, is a cherished moment I am only taking a moment now to process.
It was a deliciously traditional week, all the way to the Captain’s Run in Hyde Park, London. Camille Chat brought his gumshield. Some habits die hard. I had always been told how free range things were, but it couldn’t be that loose, could it? It was. In our first meeting, the language from Razor, who’s really good at that stuff, was leave your mark. We arrived at the idea that playing for the Barbarians wasn’t what it was about - it was about leaving your mark on the jersey and the tradition. Just like Bennett and Edwards fifty years before. Do whatever you want to do during the week, but when you cross the white line on Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, make it count. And everyone lived by that creed.
We met on Tuesday, restaurant, pints Tuesday night. Trained Wednesday morning, restaurant pints that night. Trained Thursday morning, restaurant, pints by the bucketload that night, because Friday we were off.
Some drew the line then. Other tipped away. But the significance of the experience was lost on no-one, that was plain to see. For the likes of Romain Sazy, in his last season, this was a huge honour to play for the British and Irish Barbarians. You carefully hand select who you bring in. The coaches makes that call, not the committee.
I had never met Joe Marler, he’s a very interesting, decent man. Joe Marchant too, who is joining Stade Francais from Harlequins after this season.
Delighting also in listening to the sweet Welsh lilt of Rhys Webb and Aaron Wainright, whose humour and personality transported me back to the wonderful old tourist days and one of my favourite Lions, Mike Phillips.
And of course, John Ryan of Munster. Or soon to be of the Waikato Chiefs, as he makes his farewell appearance for his home club this weekend in Italy.
I take no credit, but I would venture that his Barbarians experience in London last November reignited Ryan’s career. He returned to Munster with a new lease of life, and has been a sparkling performer ever since. The move to the Chiefs is a great opportunity for him, but his departure from Munster at this time seems like an anomaly from the outside. He was excellent again in Toulouse last week, and while it may seem left-field to say this, he looked like a player in his groove, who belonged. In other words, Munster look a better outfit with him in the front row.
Nobody can properly advise him, not even someone who has done the New Zealand thing, what the Super Rugby experience will be like. He must go down there, taste it, live it and form his own opinion on life there. They will play fast, their pitch is beautiful, so all the ingredients are there from a rugby point of view for Ryan to really enjoy it. He will leave his mark there, because he is mobile and his skills are quite good.
Hopefully, this Barbarians involvement can become an annual thing for as long as I am not involved in the international game. It’s a beautiful escape away from the intensity of full-time club coaching. It was a great mental release, and the fact it was an All Black XV only added to the lustre of the week.
With the Six Nations only a week away, Top 14 clubs are without their French internationals this weekend. We return to another memorable posting in my coaching journey, away to Racing 92 in Paris.
This is another challenging, intriguing part of the coaching experience. The fellas who don’t need management are the ones you have in the bonus locker, they are consistently eight- or nine-out-of-tens. But we are without a share of them this weekend, and you can’t just rely on your ‘star’ players. This is when the central body of the squad has to excel, where everyone ensures that training standards are maintained, that good habits are retained.
What I have done now is handed sessions over to one of the assistants, so he can police it and ref while I scan it. My brain can’t do both, I’ve learnt that in recent months. I hand control over and better scan a session because live feedback is always better, and it also has the added benefit of concentrating on what’s happening instead of trying to avoid being run over by Levani Botia on a hard line.