Coaching: The poisoned chalice


Reds coach, Ewen McKenzie, shares some great insights into rugby coaching and just how tough it is.


Coaching is a constant roller-coaster ride, so there is plenty to be thankful for when I click over the 121-game mark as a head coach-director of coaching in Super Rugby this weekend.

There has been plenty of time spent in the coaches’ box and on the sidelines during what has been the evolution to Super Rugby. For me, the record is more a function and credit to survival, as coaching is rarely measured in the number of games but rather on titles and failures. The nature of the business is one of getting it right and getting it right fast.

If you can hang around long enough you must be doing something right as the ability to survive is dependent upon your ability to win, especially when you are struggling for success.

When you aren’t winning, it’s just as important to convince those around you that success will come. But it’s just as important to manage winning on the field with results off it. You must appreciate the off-field dynamics, including commercial, marketing, political and media commitments, because you can have great ideas but without the ability to get your message across, you will always fall short.

Being a technical and tactical expert is important, but an appreciation of the other elements will allow you to get things done better. I started as the tactical and technical guy at the Waratahs. This is where every team naturally invests, so it does not contain a clear advantage, especially if you don’t have all the best players.

Some teams adopt a ”manager-coach” role, where there are enough assistants so nothing juicy is left for the head coach. They end up overseeing and endorsing, but they miss the challenge and credibility of delivering a piece of the technical and tactical coaching action.

Getting the right balance between the two is critical. Some teams have three core coaches – attack, defence and ball-winning or another is backs, forwards and defence. This approach is often supplemented with part-time roles for kicking or set-piece.

Others do it with four coaches and some teams even have five. I’ve learnt that the more coaches you have the more you manage and the less you actually coach.

I’ve been full circle in the coaching game and believe we have the right balance at the Reds with three main coaches and then others to supplement specific areas in the side. This has been the most satisfying model I’ve been involved in as it allows you to manage the difficulty of handling enough of the technical and tactical areas while also ensuring you can focus heavily on making the ever-present team dynamics your domain as well.

Understanding the importance of and then influencing team culture is critical. This drives the important behaviours and in a high-performance environment, these imperatives are specific. It ultimately shapes what’s essential in the business of sport. Culture in a team sense is always changing as you are always in a constant state of flux. It’s never permanent and needs constant attention.

There are always new distractions and the individual circumstances of every team member change, too. This is often personal, dictating how much time and energy they have to contribute to the team dynamic. Buying houses, mortgages, getting married, having children, your position in the team, your health and even social media habits have an impact.

I will always be most proud of understanding this space and its importance in success. It’s critical to be abreast of these dynamics and to be able to coach in this space has been the difference. It’s not a perfect science but being a town planner by trade the management of the ”grey” areas has been important. It has made for a longer coaching journey. Customising your methods, not a blanket approach, gets you the best outcome. This is complicated.

Being at the head of the two biggest provinces – Queensland and NSW – which boast the largest structures while struggling for economic and on-field success, has been a highlight.

When I arrived at both many described the roles and circumstances as ”poisoned chalices” but I always saw the roles as great opportunities. To be able to generate success in those environments and develop respect for the team and jersey will be what I remember most.

The number of games it took will always be secondary.

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  1. Yes Craven he will.
    After B/I Lions 3-0 pillage, Deans is toast.
    McKenzie will replace.
    Jake White should but maybe his destiny is 2019 WC glory with England?
    Uncertain though about last part because ERFU is stocked with geeks.