Coaching requirements have changed

Jamie Joseph (left) and Tony Brown prior to Japan's game against Ireland. Photo: Getty Images
Jamie Joseph (left) and Tony Brown were two of the few to successfully make the jump from playing at the top level straight to coaching it. Photo: Getty Images
Progressing up the ranks used to be the way to get into the top echelon of coaching. 
Laurie Mains started coaching Southern, had eight years with Otago and then guided the All Blacks. But times have changed. It seems now the first prerequisite of coaching a professional team is to have been a professional player.
Rugby writer Steve Hepburn asks whether coaching professionally has become something of a closed shop.
Tyler Bleyendaal became part of the Hurricanes coaching staff just before Christmas. Bleyendaal is only 30 and has not coached at any level. Tamati Ellison has barely dipped his toe into the coaching waters yet is now a paid professional coach with the Crusaders.
Forget about starting at club level anymore. Shane Christie is the new Highlanders defence coach but he was in the Highlanders squad in 2017 - as a player.


Times have definitely changed. It used to be a player would retire and move into coaching a club team. The new coach might do well at his club and after a few years get called into a lower level representative team - say a colts team or a B side. From there - if he did well enough - and the cards fell the right way - he could become a coach of a representative side.

Then if everything went well, and it was the right place and right time, he might coach the national side.

These days though it seems aspiring professional coaches do not bother with the club stuff. The likes of Bleyendaal and Ellison move straight into Super Rugby.

But is that fair on the club coaches who build the game. When do they get their chance? Is the door closed?

Marty Hurring has coached extensively at all representative levels and also been in charge of club sides in the country and also Dunedin. But he has never coached at Mitre 10 Cup level or Super Rugby.

Marty Hurring: "You learn how to coach by getting your hands dirty. You haven’t really coached until you have coached a club rugby team."

He said it seems to coach at the top level you had to have played the game at the top level.

"The last time I applied for the Otago job, I had coached Otago Country, coached Otago B, when we beat Canterbury three times and coached Harbour," he said.

"But I wasn’t an All Black so got pushed aside. So I would have to say that is the way it is. You’ve got to have played at that top level."

Hurring, though, questions whether the players who have limited coaching experience have the tools to coach.

"You learn how to coach by getting your hands dirty. How to manage all sorts of situations. You haven’t really coached until you have coached a club rugby team.

"We used to have to climb mountains to get to the top. But these guys just want to helicopter straight on to the top of the mountain."

He also questioned if the closed shop was one of the reasons it was so hard to get coaches at club level. Any aspiration to go further has been cut off.

There have been some successes in coaches moving straight from ending their playing careers to coaching at the top level. Brad Thorn is one. Tana Umaga had some success initially at Counties-Manukau, though he failed at the Blues. Tony Brown never coached at club level. Nor did Jamie Joseph.

But plenty have fallen by the wayside.

Jeff Wilson did not last long. Neither did Craig Dowd. Aaron Mauger had limited success with the Highlanders, although he did start out coaching club rugby, but not for long. Liam Barry was another one who walked the plank at North Harbour.

Todd Blackadder had the Crusaders for eight years and did not win a title. John Kirwan failed at the Blues. Daryl Gibson tripped around but success did not follow him.

Coaching is a tough gig and there are always going to be failures.

But does experiences gained at club level and through the grades help when times get tough? That can be hard to answer.

Green Island club coach Dean Moeahu said the reality was professional players knew the ins and out of professional rugby and it was completely different from club rugby.

"These players are coming out of high performance programmes and know what is needed at that high performance level. They understand the environment, what is expected. That is not a good or a bad thing ... "

Tana Umaga. Photo: Getty Images
Tana Umaga had success at Mitre 10 Cup level, but was unable to translate that to the Blues. Photo: Getty Images
Moeahu, who is coaching Green Island again this season, said coaching a club rugby team was a long way away from coaching a professional team, where players just had to concentrate on the sport.

He had goals as a coach but it was about pushing himself and taking the club as far as he could.

University coach Roy Hawker said to coach at that highest level a coach has to have experience at those levels.

"You can’t be a club coach and then go into the professional environment and find you have to work with these guys for 40 hours a week," Hawker said.

"Back in the old days at the top level you only got the players for six to eight hours a week. Now it is a 40 hour set-up. A club coach is not going to be familiar with that set-up."

Club coaches had to deal with professional players when they were released to go and play for clubs. They had to build the confidence back into the players.

Many of the top players in the team were the leaders and were forms of assistant coaches.

"You have got four or five assistant coaches and the senior players would be in the same group as them ... you’ve got to recognise those abilities. They are a senior player - you can move them over to an assistant coach."

Hawker said like anything, the bigger the stage the tougher the lessons.

"You can make mistakes at club rugby and no-one will notice. But when it is on TV and everyone can see - that is a long way to fall."

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