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Laurie Mains said anyone who stopped playing and then went on to coach a top team successfully was either absolutely brilliant — of whom there were very few — or had a team with a lot of very good players.
Not many coaches had that luxury when they started out, so they had to learn everything about the game at club level, Mains said.
The issue of top players moving into the professional coaching ranks straight after finishing playing has been highlighted of late. Former Crusaders first five-eighth Tyler Bleyendaal retired last year and has joined the Hurricanes coaching staff, while former All Black and Highlanders midfield back Tamati Ellison was announced this week as a new Crusaders assistant coach.
Mains said it was imperative coaches worked their way through the grades, learning the ropes from other coaches, picking up on the procedures that went into running a team and receiving an overall education about the game.
"You need at least three-four years there and then the same at provincial level before even thinking about going to Super Rugby," Mains said.
"You can see it now with what some of the provincial teams are doing. The lack of a game plan. Just all the technical stuff which is missing. The lineout. What is being done at the breakdown. Then what happens when you go to the first, second, third and fourth phase. What are the combinations that need to be played," he said.
"They talk about it being a completely different game at the professional level, but I do not agree with that at all. You’ve still got the basic techniques and principles. You have the same game plans right through."
Mains said when he first started coaching, a couple of games into his career he got a call from Vic Cavanagh jun, who wanted to talk with him.
Mains said Cavanagh outlined all the parts of the game Mains did not know, even though he had had a long playing career. Mains said he had to learn those parts of the game as a coach as he went along.
Mains said when he ended his playing career he started coaching as the assistant coach of the Southern second grade team — the equivalent of the premier two grade these days — and slowly rose up the ranks.
No modern player would know all facets of the game from their playing career and that was learnt in the early years of coaching.
"You only have to look at the last two All Black coaches who have been very successful. They started off coaching club and school teams and worked their way up. Scott Robertson has also got a good pedigree, as has Leon Macdonald."
An assistant coach can be helped by an experienced head coach but it was still best to learn the game down the grades and work your way up. Any mistakes made at a club game could be fixed at training but any mistakes made at the provincial level or Super Rugby level were there for all to see.
Mains also asked how a player who had just stepped off the playing field could be a good selector, which was now a key part of the coaching job.