Benedict spoke to Dave (David) Wessels who is coaching the Western Force in this years Super Rugby competition. He was previously senior assistant coach at the Force and was also appointed co-head coach of the Perth Spirit in Australia’s National Rugby Championship in 2014.
Wessels was born in Cape Town, South Africa, where he attended St Stithians College and the Cape Town University. He was a defensive consultant to the Super Rugby team the Stormers in 2008 and 2009, before being appointed as an assistant coach at UCT (Ikeys) in the Varsity Cup from 2009 to 2011.
He moved to Australia as a defensive consultant to the Brumbies under head coach Jake White in 2012, and had a significant influence on the rejuvenated Brumbies with the team conceding the fewest points in the Australian Conference and the second least in the Super Rugby competition. He joined the Western Force as the senior assistant coach for the 2013 Super Rugby season. Wessels was appointed, alongside Kevin Foote, as co-head coach of the Perth Spirit for the inaugural season of Australia’s National Rugby Championship in 2014.
Wessels became the caretaker head coach of the Western Force for the last three games of 2016, before being appointed as Head Coach for the 2017 Super Rugby season.
BC – How is being the head coach of the Western Force?
DW – It’s a huge honor. I remember waking up early as a young guy to watch guys like Zinzan Brooke, Jonah Lomu, and Michael Lygnah. You’d be lying in front of the TV under a blanket and mom would come over with some tea and rusks. It was a special time. Looking back, if you told me I’d be so heavily involved in a Super Rugby team – I wouldn’t believe you. It’s a dream come true.
BC – What are the differences between Australian and South African rugby?
DW – I’ve been in Australia for a while and SA rugby has evolved since I left. It would be unfair for me to comment on specifics, but I think South Africa and Australia have both battled to match the challenge that is New Zealand rugby. People sometimes forget that not only has the New Zealand system created the most successful rugby team of all time, but probably also the most successful international sporting team of any sport, ever!
Against this backdrop it has been a real challenge for the rest of us to keep pace. New Zealand have blown it out the park in terms administration, player welfare, coach development, continuity and skills development. In Australia this has forced us to change our thinking over recent months and to ask ourselves some serious questions about the way forward. I think we’ll see the fruits of that thinking in years to come.
BC – You are a defensive specialist; having worked with the Stormers in 2008 and 2009, before being appointed as an assistant coach at UCT (Ikeys) in the Varsity Cup from 2009 to 2011. Does this make you a defensively minded coach?
DW – I was a terrible player. So to stay involved in the sport I quickly realized I’d need to coach, and defence is the easiest part of the game to coach – because it’s so system driven. But I wouldn’t say I’m defensively minded. I think you can attack with the ball and without the ball.
The Chicago Cubs manager said this after they won the World Series; ‘If you play the game the right way, if you play the way it is supposed to be played you will get the little pieces of luck you need to win.’ I believe this is the truth. You need to play to win as opposed to playing not to lose.
BC – You moved to Australia as a defensive consultant to the Brumbies under head coach Jake White in 2012. You had a significant influence on their rebirth with the team conceding the fewest points in the Australian Conference and the second least in the Super Rugby competition. What was your time in Canberra like?
DW – It was amazing and I was fortunate to be in that environment. I lived in a two bedroom flat with Jake with his newly wed wife. Which was incredibly generous of Jake and I’m always grateful for the things he has done for my career. I learnt so much from him, Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher. I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt from experienced coaches is that players will respond to coaching staff if they know you care about them.
DW – There are so many things going for West Australia. For example, we have the third highest playing population in Australia, but the team has under-achieved. We need to improve our on and off-field performances to encourage a better distribution of Wallaby players among all Australian teams in the future (last year, the Waratahs received an extra AUS$2, 5 million more in Wallaby player payments than the Force).
We’ve done 3 key things in this pre-season; we’ve worked very hard to be fitter than ever, we’ve recruited high caliber staff in the areas of coaching, medical and athletic performance and we’ve put a massive emphasis on our basic skills (including hiring a specialist Skills Coach for the first time). All of these things – we hope – will enable us to play the type of attacking rugby we want to.
BC – What can we expect this season from the Force?
DW – We want to win and as much as that, we want West Australians to be proud of us. This is a state made up of people who have moved here from all over the world. It takes courage to move away from your home and chase a new life somewhere else. They have a pioneering spirit. Our rugby needs to embody that. We need to be prepared to make errors, to learn from those mistakes, and show an incredible amount of grit.
BC – Growing calls for the tournament to go back to 12 teams. Do you think it makes sense? The argument of quality over quantity is sensible. Where do you stand on this argument?
No. Rugby in Australia is much better off in the longer term with five Super Rugby franchises. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to do things better, including sharing knowledge between all the Australian franchises to move Australian rugby ahead of our rivals in the rest of the world. The Western Force also needs to perform better. That’s my responsibility. We need to show that we deserve our spot in Super Rugby.
BC – David Pocock and James O’Connor are some of the players to come through the ranks at the Western Force over the years. Which youngster can we keep an eye on this season?
DW – We are very proud about having the highest number of locally produced players. That includes Curtis Rona, a rugby league star who was the second top try scorer in the NRL. Talents like Kane Koteka and Chance Peni will also leave a mark on the Super Rugby scene.
Being able to reward local boys with Super Rugby contracts is a testament to a work done by our local clubs and development pathways. The impact of Dane Haylett-Petty last year was unbelievable. We also have a few more boys knocking on the Wallabies door especially Jono Lance.
DW – The reality is, being a rugby coach is pretty all-consuming. You don’t get a lot of time away from the game. I have an amazing family; my wife is from PE, South Africa and my kids were born in Perth. When I am not coaching I just want to spend as much time with them as possible.
BC – Tell us about Matt Hodgson, the inspirational player who is still a key player for the Western Force. How vital is he?
DW – Matt is a special guy. Here is a story about Hodgo – in the first year of the Force, John Mitchell had two players and one slot left in his squad. He interviewed the two players and Hodgson was one of them. At the end of his interview, Mitchell received a text from Matt saying, if you pick me I will never let you down. And so Mitchell picked him. Looking back ‘Hodgo’ has never broken his word. He’s played over 100 games for the Force and he is the heart and soul of the club. He is the perfect role model.
Thanks to Fraser Smith for the pictures