TOMORROW La Rochelle entertain Montpellier in the Top 14. There’s a lot riding on it, but I’ve been saying that for every one of the previous 13 games.
People talk about the ‘Bouclier’ being a 26-game slog but there seems to be an edge and a bit of pressure to every outing this season. Or is that because I’m head coach?
All told, tomorrow’s my 20th game in charge at La Rochelle. We’re getting there bit by bit. There was a serious feeling-out period and initially, some of the players weren’t too happy with the message they were receiving. That’s the nature of professional sport. Some fall by the wayside while others will grow. I won’t be taking the foot off the accelerator, that’s for certain.
When I started coaching at Racing 92 seven years ago, I was given great freedom by the head coaches there to input my own ideas. I didn’t hold back. But the difference between an assistant and head coach is marked, just as it is between head coach and director of rugby. It’s an interesting dynamic best defined by one being responsible for the rugby on the pitch, and the other responsible for everything off the pitch.
I was listening last week to a BBC podcast with Leinster assistant coach Stuart Lancaster, and how his role now is so different to what it was as England head coach. Where now he does his work in a tracksuit, then he was overseeing a programme, virtually a director of rugby. There’s little doubt which sounded more enjoyable. However, having a really good director of rugby behind you is fundamental. It means as head coach I have a fireguard that enables me to concentrate on the performance side, even if I am still hugely invested in the rest of the rugby project.
Coaching roles are changing all the time. There are three new head coaches kicking off in this season’s Six Nations (four if you include Fabien Galthie), but the rhythm and demands of their job is very different from that of a club coach. And yet for all the day-to-day job satisfaction of club rugby, international coaching remains the holy grail.
The common denominator is the importance of teaching and how to stimulate learning. In that respect, it seems the conversation is changing all the time. Gone are the days of being able to tell a player what’s what. Everyone’s different, hence everyone is a challenge — and an opportunity.
You talk some players through tactics, and they just get it. Others pick it up off video, more like to be shown by way of walkthrough. We have this new coaching tool at La Rochelle which is essentially a walk-on miniature pitch. It is brilliant for turning the theory into the visual. See it, walk through it, rep it. It’s not unlike Subbuteo, the forwards in red, the backs in yellow and you move the players around like a chessboard.
Of course, some players want to block all that stuff out because it wrecks their head! The big challenge is trying to master the mindset, to get the best out of players in one dressing room from all corners of the world. Some days I feel I am good at it, others I feel I am wasting my time.
You don’t have to be best buddies, but developing relationships is very important. Players have powerful feelings too; one might argue that players’ opinions are essentially more important than your own. The best in the world take no management at all, but they are the exceptions. With most, it’s a question of understanding what buttons to push. That’s the fascinating bit. Some are a joy to train. Others break your balls. But is it any different in workplaces everywhere?
The important principles from the coach are the consistency of behaviour and message. You can’t feck a player out of it for something you haven’t made them aware of.
are no bad thing — on both sides. A young lad is in his first year with La Rochelle’s senior side has the assured sense of his own place to put up his hand and highlight something I hadn’t. It’s exactly what you are looking for as a coach: Honesty.
Ifirmly believe the more people care about the club and the group, the better chance you have of consistent performance. Tactics will not get you over the line every day. It’s one of those immeasurables, but it will define you and your success as a team.
In terms of getting up off the ground and working off the ball, these are guiding principles. You would be a long time trying to coach that. Saracens have one such metric on their own box kicks, where they GPS the kick chase so they can gauge max speeds. It’s about consistency. Good attitude and behaviour is the foundation of your set up.
Lancaster said he would forever be grateful to Leinster for picking up the phone to him after he left England. He had applied for a couple of club jobs, such as Toulon, after 2015, but nothing was doing. Leinster must be fairly pleased with themselves now.
I got the sense that coaching in Dublin has re-energised Stuart Lancaster. And that he would be a different international head coach next time around.
Maybe I am wrong, but international coaching is still the ultimate buzz, especially with your own country.
I know there are peaks and troughs in terms of the short windows you have to work with players, but it’s also the best of the best coming together. I think of what Andy Farrell has to work with this week and next. It’s some collection of talent.
You are only from one country and you probably only get one crack at coaching your own. Ultimately, that’s the burning ambition for me – to coach Ireland.